Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #44”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #43”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #41”

The first time I read this issue, I reached the final page and immediately thought that this whole thing had to be a trap.  My storytelling instincts have always pointed towards the possibility that The Wicked + The Divine will end as a story about pyrrhic victories.  Laura will find a way to manage her depression and her self-destructive tendencies just long enough to end Ananke’s Recurrence, but it will probably kill her and all her friends in the process.

Issue #41 hinges on suggesting a different trajectory: Laura has a plan that can restore most of the not-actually-dead gods, and she’s going to marshal the forces of the dysfunctional Pantheon to do Ananke in.  The day will be saved and most folks will get to have some form of a happily ever after.

It’s all about hope. Also, tangetially, would you be more or less chill about someone sticking a knife in your mouth after you’d have your lips sewn shut? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is where alarm bells start going off, because hope is the last thing you want to pop up in a Kieron Gillen story.  Hope is the thing that makes you think against all available evidence that things might, just might, turn out okay.  It’s the whet stone that sharpens the dagger just a bit more before it gets plunged into your heart.  Everything about this issue is hopeful, and I am more afraid than ever that this story will conclude with Ananke victorious and everyone dying pointlessly just short of the goal.  In a story preoccupied with mortality and youth’s obscene sense of invincibility, it could happen without feeling like something we couldn’t have foreseen.  Lucifer and Inanna and Mimir have bodies again, and I am afraid for all of the Pantheon again.

Everything about this cover says “Woden” to me except for the circuitry motif in the background. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover of this issue echoes the cover of issue #7; in place of Woden’s featureless mask upon which we can project all of our loathing, we have Mimir, the true member of the Pantheon, staring back behind the helmet his own father forces him to wear.  Jon Blake’s aesthetic as Mimir, prior to his father’s betrayal, is the general inspiration for Woden’s look, but with a nod more towards the synthesis of natural and artificial.  Jon’s face bears marks that resemble circuitry embedded in his skin (very much like the background of this cover).  The helmet that Woden forces him to wear (along with the artificial body his head is mounted on) bears a strong resemblance to Valkyrie armor rather than the sleek bodysuit that he was sporting immediately after his ascension.  We’ve gotten to see so little of Jon and his personality, and that’s largely because David has been superimposing his own image on top of his son’s potential.  It’s a relief when Cassandra finally gets Jon out of the helmet that’s been his prison for the entirety of the series.  I hope this cover’s the last we see of this particular accessory.

This is a good look for Nergal. Shame he arrived at it so late. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The synopsis for the issue goes like this: Laura rescues the Norns and the heads from Woden’s prison in the mansion where the official apparatus of the Pantheon now operates since Baal burned down Valhalla, and then she takes them all to the Underground where Nergal (he’s done calling himself Baphomet ever since he was revived by the Morrigan) has finished his altar to his dead girlfriend and uses the Morrigan’s bodies to reincorporate Lucifer, Inanna, and Mimir (Tara chooses to remain just a head) while Laura explains (part of) her plan to take Ananke down.  In the midst of all that plotty goodness is the real meat of the issue: the feels that come from a cascade of moments of self actualization and reunion.  To whit, Laura saves Cassandra and they make up from their last fight; Laura finds Lucifer, who’s not bothered by the long time it’s taken Laura to get herself together; Cassandra frees Jon from Woden’s shackles and blows up the mansion (while beating up some Valkyries in a most satisfying manner); the heads explain that Minerva and Ananke are the same person; Laura finds out that Sakhmet is definitely dead (okay, that one isn’t positive, but it’s a feels punch); Laura helps Nergal let go of his history with the Morrigan so he can actually help everyone else; and the newly reconstituted Team Underworld agree to trust Laura and her (still mostly unexplained) plan.  It’s a lot of stuff to unpack, particularly between Laura and Nergal, who strike me as the emotional stars of the issue.

While we got to see a glimpse of the Laura who’s gotten it together at the conclusion of the last issue with her rescue of the crowd at the O2 disaster, this is the first time since she sorted things out at the end of issue #39 where we get to be in her head and have her talk with us about what she’s thinking.  She seems a lot steadier here than she did just a couple issues ago when much of her internal monologue was focused just on coaching herself to take positive actions instead of sulking in her own head.  Given the extreme stress of the situation (there’s a lot of bad news delivered and received in addition to all the happy things going on), Laura’s doing pretty well.  It’s good to see her back on her feet and making those repeated decisions to keep moving forward.

He’s talking about holding on to the Morrigan despite their abusive codependent relationship that resulted in his impending early demise. Dude still has some baggage that he’s working through. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Nergal is a whole different sort of mess.  It’s clear from his conversation with Laura that they’ve already discussed using the Morrigan’s bodies to help out the heads once they’ve been rescued, but that previous discussion ended unresolved.  Nergal needs a bit of a push to let go.  He feels like he’s a couple steps behind Laura in his recovery; he realized that he and the Morrigan were extremely bad for each other, and now that she’s gone he’s trying to muster the strength to move past her.  Being an underworld god with the ability to revive other folks has its temptations, and his observation that he and the Morrigan could just wrap themselves up in an endless cycle of death and resurrection as they share one life while being forever apart has a certain goth appeal to it.  The fact that that sort of bleak romance where everyone’s unhappy but deeply satisfied with the image of themselves as tortured lovers is just a variation on what he’s been through ever since the Morrigan brought Nergal into the Pantheon doesn’t seem to escape him or Laura.  Even in the face of a remarkably shortened life, Nergal doesn’t have to spend the remainder of his trapped in his past.

Following all these positive developments, the issue finishes on a triumphant note as Cassandra, in like her third moment of pristine badassery in this issue, declares that she knows how to find the Great Darkness, which they’ll need to resolve if they have any hope of getting Baal to come around on the Ananke issue.  It’s glorious, and I am still oh so scared of how things are going to shake out.

There will be answers next issue, but Laura is really keen on this whole “Trust me” thing, so we’ll go with it. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, 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 #34”

If I were to describe the arc that this issue kicks off, I’d call it something cheeky like “The Secret Origin of the Pantheon’s Greatest Foe: Ananke!”  To be honest, I’m more than a little disappointed that Gillen didn’t get an artist to do a variant cover in the style of Bronze Age superhero comics with that tagline and a scene showing Ananke dramatically murdering someone in front of a shadowy backdrop.  I mean, I know that the stated purpose of The Wicked + The Divine‘s variant covers is to show the state of comics in the period from 2014 to 2019, but I would totally dig a throwback cover.  I’m sure if I really wanted to I could probably poke around on the internet and find some fanart that rocks that particular vibe.

Nice to meet you, original Persephone. Hope we get to spend a lot of time with… oh, and you’re dead after ten pages. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Still, while we’re on the subject of covers, let’s talk about issue #34’s.  To kick off the final year of WicDiv issues, McKelvie and Wilson have returned to the series’s original format: a close cropped, straight on headshot of a character that features prominently in the issue.  In this case, we get a portrait of a character who gets introduced in this issue just before she dies violently.  The elderly woman with the rocking skull tattoo on her face is the original incarnation of Persephone.  We learn tantalizingly little about her in this issue, but it’s enough to understand that she’s as major a player in the Recurrence cycle as Ananke.  From the cover, there isn’t a huge amount that can be gleaned; the headshot covers are generally good for providing detailed studies of a character’s general aesthetic, but because they all require the subject to present with a neutral expression there’s typically not a lot more to be sussed out.  Probably my favorite detail of this cover is the set of three dots underneath original Persephone’s right eye, a detail that mirrors Laura’s own face tattoo.

Okay, this could be about something different, but I figure Ananke names herself after necessity, so why can’t we name her sister after desire? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It feels a little weird to call this character original Persephone though, especially since the issue’s opening page establishes that the first time the Pantheon appeared was six thousand years ago; the Recurrence far predates ancient Greece, so Persephone’s not really an accurate name for this character (we’ll be revisiting this beginning scene a couple more times as the arc progresses, so it’s worth thinking about how best to discuss who and what are depicted in it).  This flashback shows us that Ananke was present at the beginning of the cycle–in fact, she apparently instigated it–and the last god she murdered before she got on with her mysterious ritual was her own sister.  Both characters go unnamed here (again, you can’t apply Greek names to characters who exist before Greek civilization), but there’s a nod to the meaning of Ananke’s name in the midst of things before she gets her Cain on.  We know that Ananke’s name means “necessity”; a recurring motif with her is the fact that she does what she has to in order to remain undiscovered when she would rather act in a more subtle way.  Murdering Laura’s family, for example, is an act of necessity because she fails to leave the scene of Inanna’s murder before any witnesses show up to connect her with what’s happened (as she blows the house up she expresses what I’m going to read as sincere regret that she has to kill a few more people than she planned).  Paired with necessity in this moment in the past (and more broadly as part of a probably universal dichotomy) is desire.  The original Persephone’s name hasn’t been revealed yet at the time of this writing, but I’m going to guess that she’ll eventually be named something like Epithymia, assuming she ever receives a proper name at all.  Until that gets confirmed one way or another, I’m going to go with Epithymia for discussion purposes here.

Letting old people become gods sounds like a way better plan when you know they burn out from the power. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Besides the revelation that Ananke was part of the original Pantheon, which she murdered, and that her sister was also part of the Pantheon, whom she murdered especially hard (Gillen’s script excerpts in the back of Mothering Invention note that he particularly wants the 4000 BCE events to evoke Ananke in the role of Cain with all the baggage that entails if you know your Christian mythology), we get a truckload of new information about the nature of the Recurrence.  The thing that keeps drawing my attention are the gods themselves; in addition to Ananke and Epithymia there are the four godheads in Ananke’s sack, and all six of these figures are elderly.  Part of what we’ve known since the 455 special is that gods, if not killed, will eventually burn themselves out of divine power, but here we have six (relatively) healthy elderly gods.  Did they ascend at a later age, or is it possible that the original incarnation of the Pantheon was designed to not be the death sentence for its subjects that all the later Recurrences end up being?  The high point of the origin story is a sequence where Epithymia and Ananke take turns establishing new rules for the Recurrence going forward (that The Wicked + The Divine‘s origins in-universe are the result of a storytelling game delights me to no end).  One of the rules that Epithymia proposes is that all the gods have to be dead by the end of each Recurrence; she justifies this by pointing out that Ananke would kill them anyway if they aren’t consumed by their divinity.  It’s possible that Epithymia, as the apparent original architect of the Recurrence, had something less lethal in mind when she called the gods to incarnate in mortal people, but it might also be that she intended godhood as a state that elders in her community achieved at the end of their lives; a two year doom is less horrific when inflicted on people who’ve already lived their lives rather than people who are just beginning.

That’s cold, Ananke. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Also notable is the fact that of the gods we see, at least a couple of them are recognizable from the 2014 Pantheon.  Epithymia is clearly the original incarnation of Persephone, and in Ananke’s sack of heads we can see one with Inanna’s star on her cheek (this one isn’t surprising; Inanna is an extremely old real-world god).  On two of the other godheads are markings that seem reminiscent of other present-day gods; one of them has golden eyes that could be connected with Baphomet or Sakhmet (both have golden cat’s eyes; don’t forget that Baphomet’s real identity is Nergal, a much older god whose iconography often associates him with lions), and another has markings that resemble stylized goat horns that may be a reference to Lucifer.  All of this may not actually be relevant to the story being told, but I find it interesting on a world build level; it suggests that the gods that incarnate with each Recurrence are actually a much smaller pool than originally intended.  I’m guessing we’re meant to understand that the gods appear in guises that are culturally significant, but their actual identities are more archetypal.  It makes for some interesting speculation about how one might map broad archetypes onto each Pantheon that we’ve glimpsed (Ananke’s insistence on labeling Persephone “the Destroyer” might also point towards her influence in shaping each Pantheon to suit the story she’s trying to tell).

Lastly (for the origin sequence anyway), I just have to say that I really dig maiden-mother-crone motifs in storytelling.  They’re horrendously reductive when it comes to female characterization (and based exclusively around the state of a person’s uterus), but they make for a fun model to play with and manipulate.  The significance of Ananke claiming both maiden and crone for herself should be immediately obvious (Minerva says she’s also Ananke, and so in our story we have both a “maiden” and a “crone” who appear to have the same goals), and Epithymia claiming mother raises some interesting points of speculation about how Laura plays into all this stuff.  We won’t get too deep into those here though.

This is a major inflection point for Laura. Being trapped in a cage with your best friend and a living head can really put things in perspective. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Moving forward into 2015, there are some things worth noting about what’s going on with Laura and Cassandra.  When last we left our heroines, they had found themselves imprisoned by Woden (revealed to actually be David Blake) in one of his god cages with the living head of his son Jon (revealed to be the actual maker god Mimir).  Laura was in the midst of one of her many self destructive spirals, having just made a pass at Cassandra, when things got awkward and everyone stopped talking to one another.  When things pick up in this issue, Laura has gotten tired of the awkwardness and no one talking, and so we get some long absent caption boxes.  Laura’s narration to the reader was so ubiquitous in the first two arcs, but its complete absence after she resurfaces as Persephone sort of drowned out that earlier feature of the series.  I, at least, had a moment of disorientation as I realized that I hadn’t been directly inside Laura’s head in over twenty issues.  This shift in narrative structure is both jarring and serves as a signal that important things are happening with Laura’s character beginning in this arc.  She stops shutting the reader out at the same time she makes the decision to stop trying to sabotage her own life.  We see her making an effort to help Cassandra figure out what’s going on instead of just sulking, and part of her internal thoughts revolve around her musings on the road to hell–“paved with good intentions” and all that–which she astutely notes is a two-way street.  It’s incredibly refreshing to see Laura doing stuff to try to solve problems instead of grieving.  Given that we’re nearing the series’s end, it’s about time to see our protagonist making decisions that will affect an internal change.

Reclaiming her identity as Laura is a big deal. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Interestingly, at the same time that Laura begins to claw her way out of the grief and depression hole, Cassandra has her own mini-crisis as she reflects on (out of all the recent unpleasantness) Amaterasu’s death and Amaterasu’s belief that everything they were doing as gods had a greater purpose.  The juxtaposition of Cassandra grieving someone she didn’t particularly like (they got into a fight over Hiroshima because Cassandra pointed out how insensitive Amaterasu was about her Japanese appropriation) while having the nihilist’s equivalent of a crisis of faith (“What if there is a meaning to all of it?”) feels like a moment of genuine growth, if only because it revolves around Cassandra exercising a bit of compassion for someone she never respected while considering an alternate viewpoint on the whole meaning of life question.  It’s a moment that passes quickly enough, but it sticks with me; she doesn’t fret over the death of Dionysus, someone she actually considered a friend, or dwell on the apparent waste the last six months have been.  It’s a very un-Cassandra mode.

The fact that the nightmare scenario for Cass is that Amaterasu might be right about something is only the most recently endearing thing about her. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

There are some other bits and bobs worth mentioning from this issue.  Jon has informed Cassandra and Laura that the murder machine is actually a do-nothing machine, and because of this weirdly specific detail, Laura deduces that Minerva isn’t trustworthy.  Also, when Cassandra gets trapped in the god cage, the sliver of her divinity that inhabits the other Norns disappears, reverting them to their normal selves.  This happens while they’re in the middle of a conversation about how they map onto the members of Destiny’s Child; Cassandra is obviously Beyonce, but they’re arguing over who they parallel.  To illustrate her point that Verðandi is probably the one whose name no one remembers, Skuld points out that the press will make the effort to print Urðr’s name correctly, but they’re unlikely to do the same for Verðandi.  In a moment that is either a really meta-joke or a misprint, Skuld pronounces her counterpart’s name Verdanði.  It’s a small thing in a much bigger story, but it’s the weird detail that gets me all excited to pick this series apart.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine 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 #32”

Perhaps the most incredible thing about issue #32 is that it’s only the penultimate issue of the Imperial Phase arc.  So many things get upended here that the general feeling upon landing on the last expletive laden panel is a sense of exhaustion.  The subplot where the sky gods are busily trying to locate Sakhmet comes to a violent head at the same time Woden finally openly betrays the Pantheon, and then Cassandra and Laura wrap up with a shouting match that releases much of the tension that’s been floating between them since Ananke’s death.  In the midst of all that the death toll for the arc grows to three gods, the largest single removal of characters in the story so far (in fact, the number of dead has been steadily expanding with each conclusion of a major arc; Lucifer was offed at the end of The Faust Act, and to up that ante, Inanna and apparently Persephone were killed at the end of Fandemonium; Persephone’s death turned out to be misdirection on Gillen’s part, but then Tara died for real; if the pattern holds we can expect four more gods to bite the dust by the series’s end assuming that, y’know, they aren’t all completely doomed).

“You’re the best of them, aren’t you?” (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The issue cover features Dionysus looking way happier than he does at any moment in the issue itself.  Considering this is his death issue, it’s nice to see him get a nod.  The pretense of any sort of inset panel is completely gone by this point as Dionysus’s dance floor tiles have spilled out and flooded the entire background.  Unlike everyone else who’s graced the cover of an Imperial Phase Part 2 issue, Dionysus looks relatively relaxed and self assured.  He’s never pretended to be any kind of royalty, so here he’s dressed in his standard jeans and tee shirt with only his familiar smiley face button for adornment.  There’s nothing to the cover to clue the reader in that we’re looking at Dionysus’s last hurrah, which is nice given the unrelenting foreshadowing that Gillen and McKelvie have been dropping for the last couple issues that Dionysus is on the verge of burning himself out.  Tired, used up, and heroic are some words I’d use to describe Dionysus in issue #32, but happy is nowhere on the list.


Dionysus doubting himself is the worst. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While we’re on the subject of Dionysus (because there’s not a lot I have to say about his end here beyond the fact that it’s sad and poignant and rooted entirely in his perpetual failure to engage in proper self care), it’s worth pointing out that he goes down trying to stop Woden’s perversion of the ecstatic dance floor.  Dionysus has been from his introduction about setting aside the self in order to glory in community, and even though he ultimately doesn’t achieve anything besides distracting Woden long enough for the Norns to blast his turntable to pieces, the admirable part of his story is that he fights relentlessly for what he wants.  As a member of the Pantheon, I’d say that Dionysus gets to hold special status with Inanna as a god who manages to find contentment in his divinity in a way that none of the others really do.  If there’s a tragic element to Dionysus, it’s that in all likelihood he could have had a lot more time to do his god thing if he’d been willing to rest occasionally.

This is about the best that Dionysus gets in this issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Things are a lot more complicated for the other god who gets her curtain call in this issue.  Sakhmet has always been a character with whom I’ve always struggled to connect.  Part of this is intentional on Gillen’s part; Sakhmet’s chief characteristic is her need to keep everyone at a distance.  It follows naturally that some readers might have trouble connecting with her as well.  Over the course of this arc, the motivation for Sakhmet’s killing spree has been made abundantly clear; when the Pantheon decided to cover up Ananke’s murder, she was unconscious and left out of the decision to keep the number of conspirators as small as possible.  The offense, from Sakhmet’s perspective, is that she was kept in the dark and the other gods had been laughing at her expense.  From what we’ve seen of the period following Ananke’s death, most of the gods were too busy being wrapped up in their own personal obsessions to give much thought to Sakhmet’s ignorance.  Contrary to Sakhmet’s assumption that she’s been the object of ridicule, the reality is much more likely that everyone else just forgot she wasn’t in on it.  Even Laura, who has spent considerable time growing closer to Sakhmet, has been too focused on her own death spiral to actually reflect much on the nature of their relationship.

Every panel between Laura and Sakhmet has this incredible tension because we’re just waiting for one of them to break the peace. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

When Sakhmet, classically indifferent to another murder that she’s committed, returns to Laura’s apartment, the conversation they have is bizarrely casual.  Laura lays out in so many words how she gave Sakhmet’s location away to Baal and why she did it: “You can’t be free if you hurt people.  I think we only get to hurt ourselves.  And maybe people who want to be hurt.”  The fundamental difference between Laura and Sakhmet that’s been reinforced repeatedly over the course of Imperial Phase is that Laura is trying desperately to destroy herself but doesn’t want to be responsible for dragging anyone else down with her while Sakhmet is just trying to enjoy being numb.  The external effects of both approaches to coping with trauma look very similar, which is likely why the two women found themselves connecting.  In the end though, Laura can’t countenance the same level of callousness that Sakhmet needs to be functional while she waits for the clock to run out.  Even then, Laura can’t bring herself to take responsibility for stopping Sakhmet when she has the chance, instead finding herself saved at the last minute by a Minerva who seems to have the worst luck in terms of intervening in violent confrontations with personally traumatic results.

Laura’s outlook on life is not the brightest at this particular juncture. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

To round out an extreme downer of an issue, Cassandra and Laura have one of their famous fights where Cassandra rails at Laura for not caring about anything since becoming a god and Laura derides Cassandra’s efforts of the last six months being totally fruitless.  It’s an ugly confrontation between two people who are likely feeling very raw in the wake of the violent deaths of people they were very close to.  Laura and Cassandra have been unlikely friends since the series’s start, and so much of their frustration with each other stems from their respective failures to come through for one another in a pinch.  Dionysus might not be brain dead if Laura had been able to answer her phone, and the whole mess with Sakhmet might not have gotten as far as it did if Cassandra hadn’t been driving a third of the Pantheon to do something that was ultimately pointless for everyone but Woden.  That their working out of some of their issues serves as the catalyst that leads to them discovering a hidden room in the murder machine’s chamber is a darkly funny note on which to end the issue.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #29”

We begin the second half of the “Imperial Phase” arc immediately after where the first one left off.  The morning after Laura ghosts from Amaterasu’s party, she wakes in bed with someone who was going for a Lucifer sort of look and is immediately informed of the massacre that Sakhmet perpetrated the previous night.  It’s pretty immediately obvious that things are way more serious in the light of this particular (not so) random act of violence seeing as the victims were ordinary mortals and not super powered gods who usually draw the line at extreme levels of property destruction.

This picture of Sakhmet is pretty lit if you ignore the copious amounts of blood. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for the issue continues the motif that was established for the arc’s first half, although a few things become immediately apparent.  Sakhmet poses in regalia (and unlike the subjects on the covers of the previous six issues, she’s actually the primary subject of this issue as well despite being off panel most of the time) but her garments are soaked in blood below the waste line.  We don’t get to forget that she just committed the cardinal sin of the Pantheon: harming regular mortals.  Also with this issue’s cover we see that the inset image, which always represents a visual motif from the depicted god’s power set, is pushing outside the bounds of the border.  Sakhmet’s flaming lion isn’t going to be stopped by normal restraints.  It all comes together to provide a succinct visual summary of what’s going down: the Pantheon’s tumbling into excess, and the veneer of control they’ve been maintaining for six months is slipping.

Laura is under a lot of stress in this issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Narratively, issue #29 closely follows Laura as she absorbs the information about what her girlfriend has done .  We go with her from the police station where she explains that she hasn’t seen Sakhmet since she left the party to Valhalla where she assures Baal and the others that she doesn’t know where Sakhmet is to the Underground where the Morrigan refuses to speak to anyone until Laura leaves to another self-destructive bender to her own apartment in the Underground where she finds Sakhmet hanging out like nothing major’s happened.  It’s been such a long time since Laura was the perspective character for an entire issue that it feels a little jarring to be back in her head for such an extended period of time.  The narrative callback works well though in this case because we get intermixed with the present action a couple of flashbacks to significant moments Laura had with Sakhmet since the beginning of the Recurrence.

Sakhmet has always unambiguously been about escapism; she doesn’t think it can ever get better. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

These flashbacks are interesting because they highlight two specific moments in Laura and Sakhmet’s history.  The first one is when Laura was at the debut of both Baal and Sakhmet at the start of the Recurrence.  Baal, in his typical quippy way, remarks that he “took [the audience’s] virginity… Sakhmet’s taking everything else.”  It’s a flip way to play with the sexual element of experiencing certain gods’ miracles, but it also emphasizes what the two most senior members of the Pantheon are to Laura; she fooled around with Baphomet in secret, but Baal and Sakhmet are her public lovers.  Since her own debut, she’s vacillated between the orderly Baal and the purely hedonistic Sakhmet, and most of the time (that we’ve seen) Sakhmet has been the winner.  Sakhmet is a character totally immersed in her baser impulses as a way of coping with the genuinely terrible life she had before her ascension, and she serves as the primary model for Laura’s own coping in the aftermath of her family’s murder.  Sakhmet’s snapping and massacring a room full of fans (for reasons of which no one is yet aware; Amaterasu doesn’t count because we know that when she panics she becomes even more obtuse than normal) is the extreme that Laura likely recognizes as a potential endpoint for herself.  She’s all about self destruction, but dragging others into the mess gives Laura pause in a way that it never has for Sakhmet.

Weird how some things don’t become real until you say them out loud. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

As an aside, this issue contains a truly delightful page turn where we cut from Laura, in the middle of telling the Norns and Dionysus that she’s going home to get some rest, to her partying with abandon.  Self destruction is hard for her to avoid, and the complete lack of context for this shift from her trying to be responsible to her blowing all that up so she avoid being by herself (why else would she not go home?) is so excellent.  It’s my favorite storytelling beat in the issue, and this is a story that features both Cassandra and Dionysus being themselves to the utmost in ways that I adore.

Laura is not processing the day’s events well. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What we’re left with at the issue’s conclusion is a fair number of questions to establish tension for this new arc.  It’s clear by her reaction to finding Sakhmet in her apartment at the end that Laura has been honest with everyone all day about not knowing where her girlfriend’s gone, which means that when they reunite we get to wonder about what sort of decision Laura is going to make.  Everyone else in the Pantheon is pretty well set on finding and containing Sakhmet, and Laura’s status as the group wildcard leaves her as a big question mark going forward.  She might choose to help Sakhmet (it wouldn’t be the stupidest decision she’s ever made) or she might fall in line for once.  The implications for where Laura’s going on her character trajectory are pretty varied depending on this decision.  Aside from Laura, we also have questions about what Cassandra, Woden, and Dionysus have been up to.  They make mention of an upcoming show in this issue which Cassandra says will power up Ananke’s machine, but the specifics are unknown.  We can bet though that this show’s going to be important in some way, if for no other reason than because it will provide a nice set piece where more dramatic stuff can happen.