This issue wraps up the Imperial Phase Part 1 story arc (which, as you might guess from its title, is just one half of a larger year long arc), and given the nature of the Imperial model of Recurrences that David Blake lays out at the end of issue #27, things have to start falling apart really fast now. A lot of plot threads that were set up for this arc remain dangling, like the problem of the Great Darkness (the date that Baal set on his calendar for when that was supposed to come to a head, May 1, is still a full two months away from where the story leaves off here) and the question of what the stupid murder machine does (you’d think all the blades and saws would make the thing’s purpose more apparent, but it’s made out of god magic, so who knows?). A lot of character subplots develop significantly in this issue without any major resolution, and some new mysteries get introduced. It all feels very much like a major turn in the longer story just because there are so many inflection points centered on what happens here.
Let’s get to them.
Featured on this cover is Amaterasu in her full regalia looking suitably sun god-ey. Perhaps surprisingly though, she’s not really doing the happy radiant pose you would expect of someone who could most aptly be described in this arc as being on a white savior manic power trip. Amaterasu’s been making a lot of poor choices for a while now (beginning most firmly with issue #15 where she, y’know, performed a solar flare over Hiroshima while she was in the middle of a fight with Cassandra), and her descent during this arc has been a little more pronounced than some of the other gods both because she’s not had quite as much panel time as, say, Laura and Cassandra and because she’s starting up her own actual cult so she can spend her remaining months blissed out and providing inspiration to her fans instead of facing any other real problems that are confronting the Pantheon. This is the issue where my opinion of Amaterasu turns from mildly annoyed at her obtuseness to actively angered by her self absorption. Minerva’s take on Amaterasu as a selfish coward who can’t be counted on to do anything but look out for herself feels like it bears out following this issue. ShinTwo(tm) is a crude capitalist spin on an ancient religious tradition that Amaterasu has a passing familiarity with, and she’s completely unmoved by Cassandra’s totally valid critique of what she’s doing (as with all things Cassandra, the criticism isn’t delivered in the most tactful way, but tact requires a level of subtlety that I honestly don’t think Amaterasu grasps). The more I think about how Amaterasu’s arc plays out up to this point, the more I dislike her; she’s written as an exploration of how white privilege manifests a sense of entitlement so deep that people who benefit from it often are unable to grasp the concept of “This Is Not For You.”
In a somewhat related vein to all that is the subplot of Cassandra rooting around into Woden’s past. Back in issue #23, Woden mentions in his interview that he’s college age, that his mother isn’t involved in his life, that his father’s only positive quality is actually being a presence while he was growing up, and that he hasn’t contacted either of them since his ascension. In issue #25, he hints to Cassandra that he’s not white when she calls him out on his Asian girl fetish, and then in this issue we begin with the revelation that David Blake has a biracial son whose Asian mother left them some time ago. These clues and the laws of conservation of plot simply beg the reader to come to the conclusion that Cassandra does only a few pages later, which is that Woden is Blake’s son Jon. This is all a fine mystery for the reader to put together, but Cassandra, as someone who exists within the WicDiv universe, crosses an invasive line with someone whom she knows personally. Like the moment at the Pantheon’s last meeting where Sakhmet snapped at Cassandra for being condescending, Woden’s retort that he’s never sunk to prying into Cassandra’s private life hits pretty true (I hate it when Woden’s right about something). Cassandra’s chief flaw, which has been elevated and exacerbated by her ascension, is her tendency to flatten everything into a problem to be solved without considering the human cost of her actions. Woden’s dig about Cassandra’s pre-transition life is cheap and wrong on its own, but his point that Cassandra fails to respect the boundaries of everyone else when she’s working a problem is valid.
The last major character development in this issue (which is sort of a misnomer because everyone who appears here has a pretty big moment of character development) goes to Laura, who after a couple months of purely self destructive behavior finally finds herself directly confronted with the consequences of some of her actions, and it’s enough to jar her out of the numb pleasure seeking she’s been pursuing nonstop since New Year’s. On Dionysus’s invitation, Baphomet shows up for Amaterasu’s party at the ShinTwo(tm) shrine (the friendship between Baphomet and Dionysus really doesn’t get enough space in the book), but as soon as he sees that Laura is also there he bolts. Laura, frustrated that Baphomet has been avoiding her since their last tryst at Christmas, catches him outside to demand an explanation for his ghosting her. In the struggle to get away from Laura, Baphomet’s shades get knocked off his face to reveal bruises and scratches that the Morrigan has inflicted on him. That whole mess deserves some dissection by itself, but the focus in this issue is Laura’s realization that she’s not just been screwing up her own life while she deals with her grief. We’ve seen a few inklings of Laura’s misgivings about her behavior as she’s tried to make tentative emotional connections with Sakhmet (which Sakhmet always effortlessly bats away). It’s easy to see why Laura would seek out a bond with Sakhmet; trauma’s not exactly uncommon among the members of the Pantheon, but Sakhmet’s approach of aggressive hedonism in order to numb pain is likely appealing to Laura, who’s shown signs of anhedonia since before her ascension. The big downside to Sakhmet’s coping mechanism is that it requires total indifference to everyone else, and for all Laura has tried that strategy, it just doesn’t seem to be in her. Seeing that her casual sleeping around has helped intensify the problems between Baphomet and the Morrigan serves as enough of a shock that she bails on the party, leaving Sakhmet and Amaterasu alone with a bunch of fans, which leads directly into the issue’s major hook for the second half of the Imperial Phase macro arc.
As if all of that stuff weren’t enough, the issue ends with a stinger that flashes back to the moments just before Laura began her assault on Valhalla in Ananke’s quarters. We see Ananke, in tears, writing a farewell letter to an unnamed addressee where she lays out her fears about being unable to manage the current Pantheon and the continuing threat of the Great Darkness. It’s obvious that Ananke expected to be killed, and we’re now left with the mystery of who her co-conspirator might be. Woden is immediately out, since he almost interrupts her reflection with the news that Persephone is coming. The only hint we get is in the final panel where the letter, left rolled on Ananke’s desk, disappears in a flash of purple starlight.