Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 455 AD”

To say that I’ve been looking forward to tackling this issue for months is a pretty big understatement.  I’ve been reading The Wicked + The Divine for a couple years now, but it wasn’t until maybe six or seven months ago that I finally decided that I needed to read the special issues even though they’re not collected in trades yet (I understand the plan is to collect all the specials in their own trade as a ninth volume in the series).  Skipping the specials is perfectly fine because they never carry any information that’s essential to understanding the ongoing plot of the main series, but they do give loads of information about how previous Pantheons have operated and more than a little insight into the motivations of Ananke, a character who can at best be described as “unreliable” in her explanations for why she acts the way she does.  The 455 AD issue is especially important for understanding Ananke and a lot of what happens around each Recurrence.  It’s not a magic key that resolves all the mysteries, but it explains a lot of stuff.

If the bloodstained hands don’t give you a hint about how this is going to go, then the burning city in the background sure will. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The 455 AD issue concerns itself primarily with a Lucifer who has gone rogue.  A low status actor who has been trying to thrive in the waning days of the Roman Empire, Lucifer begins his story by dressing in purple (the color that only Roman emperors were allowed to wear), declaring himself the reincarnation of Julius Caesar, and destroying the Vandal army that has arrived to sack Rome.  The rest of this Pantheon have all died, either through the usual mischief the gods get up to or as the result of a final suicide pact similar to how the remainder of the 1920s Pantheon blew themselves up at the very beginning of WicDiv #1.  It’s unclear whether the Pantheon’s collective time has run out or if they just offed themselves ahead of schedule, but what is apparent is that Lucifer has most assuredly gone off script.

What follows this auspicious start is a story about how Lucifer, the perennial rebel of the Pantheon (I have to wonder just how often Lucifer reincarnates considering that many of the other gods tend to rotate in and out of the Pantheon lineup), goes about nearly mucking up all of Ananke’s carefully laid plans by simply refusing to die when he’s supposed to.  This Lucifer, like the other two that we’ve seen so far, is both fascinated with the role that he’s been given to play and transcending the limitations of the same.  Like the 1831 Lucifer who’s obsessed with overcoming death and the 2014 Lucifer who resents Ananke’s rules about how the Pantheon is supposed to conduct itself in front of the public, the 455 Lucifer is determined to go his own way.  Besides the simple impulse to try to extend his life for as long as possible, this Lucifer also carries some deep anxieties over the low status of actors (it’s a fun bit of irony that this Lucifer lives in poverty as an actor while his later incarnations will enjoy absurd luxury because of their status as pop idols).

Lucifer/Julius raises a valid point. The gods only have Ananke’s word to go on about who they’re supposed to be. (Artwork by Andre Araujo, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It’s the twin threads of Lucifer’s resentment over his low status and his desperation to escape the Pantheon’s curse that drive him to save Rome and declare himself the reincarnation of Julius.  The assumption of Julius’s identity seems like an odd move until you remember that the Roman emperors beginning with Julius were often deified; Lucifer, being an actor, views his godhood as a matter of shedding one role and assuming a different, more prestigious one.  If it were just about grasping power, then Lucifer would likely be relatively content ruling over Rome for the two weeks that he has left after Ananke tells him he was supposed to have died; instead he’s hung up on the fact that in order to successfully transition to a new role he has to give up everything he’s loved.  His lover (a Dionysus who gets far too little time on panel) and his career are gone; all he has as Julius are the responsibilities of an emperor and no peers to confide in.  This lack of support (and the mental burden that godhood imposes) causes Lucifer to spiral into madness, slaughtering the Senate and using their remains to fashion crude musical instruments before he literally burns out in the temple of Jupiter.

If there’s a key motif to Lucifer’s character, it’s his frustration that so many of the things he loves are mutually exclusive. (Artwork by Andre Araujo, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

I don’t know why, but I’m inclined to believe Ananke about this specific motivation. She’s manipulative and backstabby, but her agenda does seem to be geared towards whatever she thinks is the greater good for the whole world. (Artwork by Andre Araujo, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The fact that Lucifer flames out so spectacularly isn’t really the interesting story here (although it is interesting to see the result of a god actually surviving long enough to suffer their version of a “natural” death; it doesn’t bode well for any of the present day Pantheon); what is interesting is that we get to see Ananke (ever the supporting character) at a period far removed from her frustrated, cynical self in 2014.  This is Ananke in a much more forthright mode.  She speaks earnestly to Lucifer about the importance of his participation in the plan and only once tries to kill him behind his back (unlike literally every other god, this Lucifer totally expects Ananke’s classic “explode the head while no one’s watching” maneuver).  When it becomes clear that Lucifer has the upper hand, Ananke tries to plead with him to consider the greater good, a tactic that present day Ananke appears to have completely abandoned in favor of manipulation and deceit.  We get to see here that the story Ananke spins for Cassandra in issue #9 about the necessity of having someone manage the gods’ behavior so they don’t plunge the world back into a dark age does have a little bit of merit, or at least Ananke’s being genuine about her belief in that necessity.  She thinks she’s acting in the interest of the greater good, and she might very well be, but we have so little to go on regarding what Ananke fears.  We’ve seen manifestations of the Great Darkness in the present, but that doesn’t seem to be the same problem that she discusses with Lucifer here.  Ananke’s interest seems to expand beyond the well being of Rome (Lucifer cites an incident with this Pantheon’s Inanna when she saved Rome from Attila the Hun’s army, a move which Ananke opposed), which meshes with her story about the Pantheon’s role as elevators of all humanity.  One of the chief tragedies of the gods is that they’re wrapped up in deeply personal stories while Ananke is thinking about events on a global scale.

In the end, it’s this large scale thinking that leads Ananke to encourage Geiseric the leader of the Vandals to sack Rome and destroy all records of Lucifer’s brief reign.  She understands that future gods mustn’t be aware that it’s possible for them to rebel against her plan, even temporarily, because the results could be disastrous if multiple gods get the idea to pursue their own personal obsessions (it’s no small coincidence that this special issue comes at the midpoint of the “Imperial Phase” story arc where the present day gods are doing just that in the aftermath of Ananke’s death).  We know that Geiseric is successful because any time this particular Pantheon is mentioned in the present day story, everyone treats it as a great mystery in the history of Recurrences.  Lucifer’s rebellion is rendered moot, and any sort of legacy that he hoped to leave behind gets erased.  Ananke gets her way by one method or another.

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #23”

I’ve spent months wondering about how I was going to talk about The Wicked + The Divine’s twenty-third issue.  It’s such an unusual artifact set pretty much right in the middle of the series, and it adopts a format that’s at once reminiscent of the backup material found in issues of Watchmen while doing something that I’ve not encountered before in fiction writ large.

The covers for Imperial Phase present the Pantheon at their most collected; each cover will show a god in control of their image backed by a panel depicting one of their core motifs. The first one has Baal looking like he’s in charge now. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The conceit of the issue is that it’s not an issue of a monthly fictional comic but a monthly fan magazine that exists within the WicDiv universe.  This sort of creation of in-universe artifacts isn’t that unusual (again, Alan Moore did it as filler for the letter pages when he was writing Watchmen), but what strikes me as special about it is the fact that Gillen has actually outsourced most of the copywriting of the book to actual journalists (he cheekily inserts himself as the Editor of Pantheon Monthly, which I’m sure some fans somewhere have used as an excuse to create art where he is mercilessly tortured by his own creations as payback while declaring “this could totally happen!”).  The way this narrative sleight of hand is accomplished was through roleplayed interviews between Gillen as each of the subjects and their respective interviewers over instant message with accompanying notes from Gillen about what the gods were doing during each scene.  It’s a really cool way to collaborate with other writers in a way that helps shape the narrative without stifling individual voices, and I’m left curious about the possibilities of this particular style of writing. On the art side of things, we have a couple of pinup style pieces by McKelvie framed as ads for products that Baal and Persephone are selling bookending the issue, and each article is accompanied by two to three illustrations of its subject by Kevin Wada presented as fashion photography.  Anything that might be considered traditional sequential art is limited to two pages at the issue’s end where the public version of Ananke’s death is recapped with panels meant to be still frames from the documentary footage that Beth’s team got during the events of Rising Action and a three panel gag strip of the Pantheon deciding to party after Ananke bites the dust reside.

The interview format of the issue allows it to serve a unique narrative function within the series as a whole.  Coming off of the climax of Rising Action, the Pantheon is now in uncharted territory as it has to navigate its final year without Ananke’s machinations guiding everyone towards whatever her own goals were.  The kids are on their own for the first time, and that new status quo requires a fair bit of set up; instead of jumping right into the next bit of action, issue #23 gives a little bit of a breather and lets the reader know obliquely about how things have changed in the intervening three months.  Besides the expositiony stuff, there’s also a healthy dose of character exploration, although it’s all filtered through the way the gods interact with the public instead of among one another; except for the Morrigan (who, let’s be honest, is always in character), every interview has at least one moment where the writer notices the artificial nature of their subject’s pose.  It’s a well-worn critique that celebrity breeds a level of disingenuity between a person and their fans, but this issue seems to revel in that reality as a core commonality among the members of the Pantheon, who are as dysfunctional in their interactions as ever.

While each god approaches their interview with a different explicitly stated motivation, the common thread among them is an assertion of self and legacy that seems pretty closely tied up with the desperation that likely follows from suddenly being without a mentor.  All the gods are clearly thinking about their impending mortality and what they hope to accomplish in the time they have left; the Morrigan and Amaterasu are a bit more explicit in their wish to leave behind something more than just the memory of them, but even Baal and Woden hint at wanting to have some kind of purpose to their divine tenure (even if in Woden’s case that purpose is just enjoying himself as much as possible).  Lucifer’s interview is the oddball in the group just because of its temporal displacement within the series’ continuity.  In this piece we get a glimpse at what the world was thinking about the Pantheon in its early days before Lucifer blew the big secret about all the miraculous stuff being legitimate.  More intriguing than that bit of early mystique (clearly Lucifer is just on the verge of stealing the spotlight) is the reminder that Lucifer’s take on the godhood deal early on was a lot more cynical than the other public facing Pantheon members.  She’s playing her part as the unrepentant rebel dutifully, but there are hints here and there that she’s not really happy with the turn of events.  All the gods worry on some level that the cost of their fame is probably too high, but aside from characters like Woden and Sakhmet (who pair their coping with an intense amorality) Lucifer is the one who tries to sooth those worries with a hedonistic abandon that clashes so strongly with what she values.

When the issue is over, the strongest sense that we’re supposed to take away is that the gods are determined to do their own thing now that Ananke is dead, and they will very likely make it all worse while they’re trying to figure out what that should look like.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #5”

If you’ve made it to the fifth issue of The Wicked + The Divine then it’s time for congratulations: we’re about to hit on our first major character death and the test of how attached one has become to a character comes sharply into focus.  Did you like Lucifer’s devil-may-care attitude and casual disdain for the norms and systems that keep society operating in a way that’s not total chaos?  Too bad; she’s dead.

Enjoy this one image of Tara; we won’t meet her for like another eight issues. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson)

The issue starts off with a continuation of a visual gag that Gillen and McKelvie have been working into the beginning of every issue where the god on the cover is directly referenced in the first panel of the issue (this technically isn’t true for issue #1, but given that we see in the conclusion of this arc that Lucifer is doomed, the splash page of the skull feels appropriate).  Our focal god on the cover here is Tara, a god that has been much maligned by everyone in the story (everyone thinks she’s stuck up and weird, and because we haven’t met her, we don’t really have any grounds to naysay it).  The panel shows Lucifer defacing a poster with a stylized portrait of Tara, just the latest bit of destruction in Lucifer’s sort-of-rampage away from the prison where she’s been held.  It’s a fitting place to start since it’s Lucifer destroying the icon of another god, and this issue is all about her fascination and disgust with the Pantheon’s obsession with image.

Of course, Lucifer isn’t just defacing property; she’s also causing mass chaos; cars and police officers in riot gear are on fire, and a crowd is forming to watch the spectacle of the god who’s decided to stop acting like she isn’t a god.  While all this happens in the background, Lucifer meditates on Tara’s philosophy (which seems to apply to most of the gods): “If you exist, you’re staring at me.”  On one hand that’s an absurdly egotistical statement, but on the other, it’s undeniable that the gods are fascinating figures from whom everyone seems unable to look away.  Even Cassandra, who actively decries the Pantheon, is obsessed with making her documentary about them.  We’re clearly supposed to absorb Lucifer’s contempt for Tara (and by proxy, all the gods), but there’s also a strong ironic undercurrent; you can’t exactly wander down the street wreaking havoc without wanting at least a little bit for people to see what you’re doing.

Lucifer’s inability to effectively rebel against the nature of divinity is probably her great tragedy. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Before too long, Lucifer’s stunting attracts the attention of the rest of the Pantheon; Laura and Cassandra are also there as bystanders desperately trying to be part of the bigger story (they’re actually pretty significant players, but only at the end).  The gods with whom we’re most familiar show up to try to get Lucifer to stop what she’s doing in their own individual ways.  Amaterasu, who was friends with Lucifer before they ascended, tries to sweet talk her back to jail, but Lucifer is having none of that.  In a sequence that highlights just how much Lucifer doesn’t get along with the high profile Pantheon members, her greatest contempt seems to be reserved for her best friend.  I think this is best exemplified when Lucifer mocks Amaterasu for using diminutive versions of their stage names; aside from Cassandra mentioning in the first issue that Amaterasu’s real name is Hazel and that Lucifer’s last name is Rigby, we don’t get much information about who any of the gods are apart from their divine identities.  It’s a barb that resonates with Lucifer’s mockery of Cassandra back in the first issue as well; the fact that Cassandra is trans and therefore assumed a new name as part of her transition seems at least in Lucifer’s mind to fall in the same vein of prioritizing image over authentic identity (Lucifer’s also being a jerk because she believes that’s what she does, but two things can be true).  Lucifer’s ire towards Amaterasu is especially fierce since they actually have personal history before the whole godhood thing happened.

Lucifer has had it with your hippy-dippy crap. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

When Amaterasu’s attempt to reason with Lucifer fails, Baal and Sakhmet step in to beat her senseless.  This is the first really “comic book-y” moment of the series; several super powered individuals engage in a street brawl that involves lots of face smashing and explosions.  It’s a lot of fun and a good reminder after so many talking heads in the course of the first four issues that McKelvie is a very accomplished artist with a lot of flexibility in the sorts of scenes he can draw.  While Lucifer gets her butt handed to her by Baal and Sakhmet, Laura decides it’s time to call in that favor that the Morrigan owes her, so she goes running into a subway tunnel towards and oncoming train.  The Morrigan saves her and agrees to provide cover for Lucifer so she can escape and hide from the rest of the Pantheon.  This is generally a good thing for Lucifer, because she’s pretty beat up by the time she, Cassandra, Laura, and Morrigan take shelter in a house just on the street that Lucifer has been terrorizing.  Laura is desperately trying to calm things down as she urges Lucifer to hide in the underground with the Morrigan and demands that Cassandra and her film crew stop recording for just a minute.  Lucifer disagrees with this last point.

Who would it be the worst thing for? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Again, Lucifer’s disgust with the spectacle of godhood doesn’t stop her from being obsessed with playing into it.  She’s just shown the world that the powers of the Pantheon aren’t an elaborate hoax, and she doesn’t want that moment to pass undocumented.  Her motivations for all of this seem to be a mixture of general weariness of the games the gods play with mortals’ expectations about them, a desire to lay bare what it means to be part of the Pantheon, and that immutable need to perform and be seen performing.  In the second issue Lucifer told Laura, “I need to be on a stage.  If I can’t do that, it’s all so awfully pointless.”  Being cooped up in a jail cell for a crime that she didn’t commit where she’s unable to be in the spotlight is an unbearable punishment to Lucifer, and so she decides that it’s better to bring the full wrath of the Pantheon down on her head so that she can be seen for what she is (or at least, what she thinks she’s supposed to be) one last time.  The whole episode screams hard of Lucifer having something of a death wish, even as she jokes about shacking up with the Morrigan after they’ve escaped from the fight with Baal and Sakhmet.

Before the fugitives can make good on their escape, Ananke steps in to make it clear that someone needs to be held responsible for the mayhem, and she summarily executes Lucifer in view of everyone with a display of her own miraculous power.  Like something of a Greek chorus, Ananke pronounces her moral over the gods’ reckless display of power: “Generally speaking, gods desire nothing but adoration.”  It’s true that Lucifer’s last stand gets everyone’s attention, and this was a major goal, but Ananke’s proclamation flattens out the complexity of Lucifer’s motivations for rebellion; she was both trying hard to fulfill a role she thought she had to own and railing against the artificial nature of the Pantheon’s celebrity.

A lot of chaos and paradox. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Ananke’s epigram on Lucifer’s death is only the most public one.  In the aftermath of the execution, Laura tries to process what’s happened and how she feels about Lucifer’s death.  Though it was founded on more than a few lies and only the cruelest bits of truth, Laura clearly thinks of Lucifer as a friend.  The careless afterthought of a final gift that Lucifer gave her, a pack with only one cigarette left, sums up the ambivalence that Laura feels about this episode of her life.  She’s just been through something extraordinary, but all it’s done is helped her realize that she’s not happy with her life.  Instead of doing the watching, she needs to be the one watched.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #4”

After a few issues of flirting with the stars of the story, issue four finally takes the time to introduce Laura and us with most of the major face of the Pantheon.  At the end of the last issue, Laura and Cassandra found themselves being threatened by Baal, the de facto front man of the Pantheon who wants them to quit snooping around behind his back.

My favorite part of this cover are Baal’s goat eyes just barely being visible behind his shades. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson)

Following that initially very scary threat, we find that Baal was mostly just trying to intimidate our sleuths into accompanying him to Valhalla where Laura can get a stern talking to from none other than the mysterious Ananke in front of the most public facing of the gods.  Cassandra is barred entry because she’s not a true believer (I guess?  It’s possible she’s just not allowed in because she hasn’t built a personal connection with Lucifer like Laura has), but she still gets an earful of Baal’s philosophy of inspiration and why he thinks the Recurrence happens.  Unlike Lucifer, who is nothing but cynical about her divinity and accompanying short life span, Baal seems to genuinely believe that there’s something important happening with the Recurrence.  In a lot of ways he echoes the sentiments of Amaterasu back in issue one, but with way more swagger.  It’s a nice character beat for Baal, since our first impression of him was as a brash, pugnacious guy who provides the party line that no one knows definitively that Lucifer is responsible for the judge’s death.  In a story where everyone is massively preoccupied with image, something about Baal’s particular brand resonates as sincere where Lucifer’s cynicism or Baphomet and the Morrigan’s interpersonal drama seem deliberately performative.  This is epitomized when Baal tells Cassandra in no uncertain terms that he knows his deal’s a bad one, but his existence isn’t about promoting his own personal happiness.

In re-reading this first arc, I’ve been struck by just how much of each issue is really just panels of talking heads having conversations. I still love it because McKelvie’s art is just that good. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Of course, mixed up in Baal’s magnanimity is the undeniable sense that he thinks he’s better than everyone else.  The tagline he generates for himself in the midst of his impromptu interview with Cassandra is, “I’ve always claimed I’m a god, even before I knew I was one.”  Baal’s character concept is heavily inspired by the personas of famous hip-hop and R&B artists of the last decade (he’s clearly channeling Kanye with his “I am a god” talk), but it never comes across as obnoxious.  Part of that is definitely because of Laura’s constant fan-girling (as with everything in this story, what we’re seeing here is filtered through her perception of things, and she is super into Baal), but Baal’s commitment to the idea that he is supposed to be an inspirational figure for people makes him feel much less like an egomaniac and more like someone who just needs to share his actual greatness with others.  The major crux of his appeal is his reliance on the assumption of honesty.  Baal doesn’t do false humility because he genuinely believes he’s great, and he offers other people the chance to believe in their own greatness.

Considering Laura’s own sense of self-loathing, it’s easy to see why she finds Baal’s schtick so enticing. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

After our extended conversation with Baal, Cassandra gets left at the door so that Laura can meet half the Pantheon in person and have a chat with Ananke.  Besides Amaterasu and Sakhmet, whom we met in issue one, the other gods that we finally meet here are Minerva and Woden.  They’re still relatively sketchy since this is primarily an audience with Ananke, but we gather quickly that Minerva is really not happy with the whole dying young thing (she’s only twelve) and Woden really has a thing for tall Asian women.  Ananke, for her part, is mostly mystery incarnate with only vague hints at why the gods do what they do (the big reason they don’t wreak more havoc on humanity: humans aren’t as powerless as they think).

Ananke isn’t one for much explanation of her assertions, so we just have to take her word at this point about the Recurrence providing humanity with inspiration, however vague and ill-defined that idea might be. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, and letters by Clayton Cowles)

Suffice it to say that Laura’s meeting with the Pantheon is not very productive at all; they’re generally in agreement that Lucifer should sit in jail for everyone else’s safety, and none of the gods are particularly bothered by the possibility that one among them murdered the judge.

More talking head panels, and I still don’t care. Look at those faces! Poor Lucifer! (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue concludes with Laura reporting back to Lucifer to let her know that gods only help those who help themselves, which Lucifer takes in stride.  Laura tries to assure her that it will turn out fine, but Lucifer knows how these stories work.  She decides she’s had enough of playing by everyone else’s rules, so she performs some miracles (like the finger clicks were really the only way she could manifest her power) and breaks out of jail.  This is, as you might imagine, not exactly what anyone else in the Pantheon wanted.  Whatever’s going to happen next, we know it’s going to be bad; Lucifer’s assertion that “It was never going to be okay” reads as the first bit of absolute truth she’s told Laura since they met.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 4”

There’s a subplot in The Kindly Ones involving Lucifer’s bar Lux in the early chapters that leaves me unsure how it fits into the larger story.  Lyta’s dinner meeting with her potential employer in issue 57 happens at Lux (we get a couple pages devoted to Lucifer being gloriously snarky to a couple who are out celebrating the woman’s birthday; he foretells that their evening won’t end happily, and a snippet from the news in issue 58 indicates that the man drowns after falling overboard on a romantic boat ride following their dinner; this whole sequence is darkly funny, but it doesn’t have much apparent relevance to the story), and now in this issue we get to see a meeting between Lucifer and one of the angels whom have been appointed to replace him as rulers of Hell, Remiel.  The last time we saw Remiel in any depth was at the end of Season of Mists when Dream agreed to let him and Duma take possession of Hell on God’s orders.  It’s worth recalling that even then, Remiel was visibly upset with his orders, and he engaged in some pretty twisted rationalization to make it palatable.

Remiel gets told, and in the background Mazikeen stays cool. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Here in the present, we find that Remiel is still super bummed about running Hell, and he’s come, among other things, to ask Lucifer if he’s ever considered returning to his old job.  This one question, which is really the most important thing to Remiel about the whole exchange if I had to judge, is wedged in between talk about the new redemptive purpose of Hell under Remiel and Duma’s supervision and Lucifer unloading a vicious analysis of Remiel’s character (Lucifer’s verdict: Remiel’s a spineless coward).  The question marks an inflection point in the conversation where Remiel has clearly lost control (honestly, he didn’t have control of the conversation before that point, but he hadn’t exhausted Lucifer’s patience yet), and it rapidly goes downhill.  When Remiel tries to reassert himself (by rashly spitting in Lucifer’s face, of all things), he’s subjected to one last humiliation when Lucifer explains that just because he gave up ruling Hell doesn’t mean he also gave up all of his vast power as the only being to ever credibly threaten God, and it’s really only God’s protection that keeps him from erasing Remiel from existence.

This whole scene is a fascinating look at a minor character dealing with a crap hand (remember, I said way back at the end of Season of Mists that Remiel was screwed over by God, who’s a jerk in Gaiman’s universe).  Lucifer’s not wrong about Remiel being a coward who just wants to save face, but I do feel bad for him; it’d be so much better if Hell could just be shut down or, barring that, letting the inhabitants run it instead of making Remiel and Duma do the job.

And for all that, I still don’t know why this scene is here at all.  It calls back to Season of Mists, but it calls back to a portion that doesn’t directly impact the ongoing plot regarding Lyta Hall and Dream (Remiel doesn’t even get around to asking Lucifer about that whole thing).

Speaking of Lyta, her descent into madness hits a new low here.  After she learned from the detectives that Daniel has been burned to death, she goes on something of a walkabout, wandering around the city having visions of mythical figures that are vaguely connected to her surroundings.  Because we’re talking about The Sandman, Lyta’s delirium isn’t just simple madness.  On some level, her interactions with the mythological are really happening, and in the course of her wanderings she encounters two of the Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale.  They’re the first ones in Lyta’s journey that are able to offer her some help in finding the Furies Kind Ladies while offering to let her be their new sister, since the last one was killed.

The scene with Stheno and Euryale is visually interesting because it’s set inside a darkened house where the sisters are dressed in a way that’s directly reminiscent of the lovers Chantal and Zelda who were residents in the boarding house where Rose Walker lived during the Doll’s House arc way back at the series’s beginning.  This is another odd callback in the middle of an issue that feels like it’s doing a lot of setup for the things that will be coming up soon.  In one sense I can see the thematic significance; Gaiman’s been building a case for a mystical connective tissue between all of his biologically female characters for a long time, so connecting the Gorgons with Chantal and Zelda almost seems like an “of course” moment, especially since their connection as lovers was originally obscured when they first appeared.  That the callback happens in this issue, where we finally learn that Daniel’s babysitter on the night he was abducted was Rose Walker, makes further sense; Rose has her own plot thread to follow (she was the keystone in Desire’s first plan to get Dream to kill a member of their family), and doing a callback to some of the weirder characters from her story goes a long way to make it all feel more tightly woven together.

Shut up, Merv. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Going back to Dream, the only real development we have in his plot here is that he finally finishes remaking the Corinthian.  We’ll see some interesting things with this character in the future, but for now he’s just there at the end, ready to go with his three creepy smiles.  For Dream’s part, the only really interesting character bit is his observation that while the Dreaming reflects his mood, he also reflects the Dreaming’s.  It’s easy to forget that the Endless are anthropomorphic personifications of universal ideas, and this means that even as we’ve been getting to know the aspects they present as the characters in the book, they also respond to larger things than just what they experience personally.  Mervyn Pumpkinhead observes that the Dreaming’s been acting strangely lately, and Dream confirms that he doesn’t really have any control over recent phenomena.  Gaiman’s universe is aware that something big is about to happen, and we’re seeing ripples of it all over the place.

Reading “Season of Mists: Epilogue”

All through Season of Mists I’ve had a recurring complaint that each successive issue in the primary story has virtually no resolution to it.  By forcing myself to re-read the series on a slower schedule so that I can approach each issue fresh and with minimal overlap with the story that surrounds it, I’ve really come to appreciate how it must have felt having to wait a whole month for what came next.  Gaiman continuously ratchets up the tension in this arc, with Dream first setting out to make amends to Nada before getting frustrated by Lucifer complicating things with his renunciation of Hell, which then spins into the various mythological figures coming to visit with the hope of acquiring control of Hell for themselves.  We still remember that reconciliation with Nada was Dream’s original goal, but that’s not been revisited since Chapter 2 (Nada’s appearance as a bargaining chip in the negotiations for Hell reminds us of this, but it isn’t in the forefront of the more recent proceedings, and it’s been tantalizingly dangling there for what seems like forever, especially if we consider that this particular story first began way back in issue #9).

When we discuss writing and the art of constructing a story with strong emotional impact, Rachael often points out that one of the most important tricks to plotting a good story is to orchestrate it so that the climaxes and resolutions for as many of the threads as possible occur in close proximity to one another (for anyone who’s inclined to think in gaming terms, it’s like implementing a chain bonus multiplier that rewards sustained successful execution of whatever game mechanic you want to think of).  It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but when it happens it’s incredibly satisfying.

All this is to say that while most of Season of Mists is semi-frustrating build up, its final chapter is a continuous string of payoffs that makes me willing to forgive all the suspense I’ve been left in for the past couple months.  Really, I think this is the issue that marks the transition from The Sandman being a really good comic to a great comic, as we’re getting here the first taste of how Gaiman will be structuring the remainder of the series: multiple issues feeding into a story arc that has a nice payoff while building in more and more ongoing threads that will be resolved in ever larger batches.

To get down to specifics of this issue, we finally get to see Nada confront Dream for what he did to her in parallel with the fates of the angels Remiel and Duma, Loki, and Lucifer.  Nada’s refusal to let Dream half ass his way through his apology to her (the number of qualifiers he employs to distance himself from his own responsibility is amazing) is so satisfying in its own right, because it’s the first time that we get to see someone besides Death set Dream straight and demand that he do better.  The most prominent motif in Dream’s character arc throughout the series is that he is a terrible ex-lover, and his realization and correction of this fact proceeds to cost him more and more.  We got a taste of this in the earlier standalone story “Calliope,” but this final encounter with Nada really crystallizes the pattern that Gaiman’s going to follow from here on out (rounding out this particular motif is the small development in this issue that Nuala, the lady from Faerie who was given to Dream as a gift, discovers here that she must stay in the Dreaming or risk the displeasure of Titania; that she will eventually fall in love with Dream should come as little surprise, but we’ll revisit her later).

Juxtaposed with Dream’s growth, we get to see Remiel and Duma assume their new roles as Lords of Hell with further meditation on how unjust their predicament is; Remiel immediately sets about trying to justify God’s decision as being about compassion, with a small discourse on how Hell will be about gradual redemption rather than simple punishment, which one of the inhabitants remarks makes the suffering even worse.  Remiel is insisting that there must be some ultimately benevolent purpose behind all the suffering, and in his refusal to accept any other explanation, he deprives the condemned of their own satisfaction, shifting the purpose of Hell away from wrestling with personal demons to one of abusing others for their own good.  The former situation is already bad, but it lacks a certain element of cruelty in comparison to the latter, and in my mind it simply reinforces the thesis that Gaiman’s character of God is a jerk who only cares about preserving his own position of power in the universe instead of enacting the kenotic principle that I think best informs our understanding of our universe’s God.

Among his other positive qualities, Dringenberg’s the only artist who really draws Lucifer to look like David Bowie. I’m going to miss that. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Lucifer has a single scene in this issue which involves him sitting on a beach in Perth, Australia, enjoying his retirement when a man who’s had a lot of senseless misfortune in his life (he lost his two sons to the Vietnam War and a car wreck, and his wife died of breast cancer) remarks that for all the bad things he’s endured, he can at least enjoy the beauty of a unique sunset every evening, so whatever god may have dealt him such a bad lot can’t be all bad.  That Lucifer grudgingly agrees about the sunsets is kind of a bittersweet ending; he’s fully justified in thinking the worst of God, especially since his story echoes Nada’s in macro: he refused to submit to the will of a greater being, and he was punished excessively for it.  It’s perhaps Dream’s saving grace that unlike God, he is capable of learning and practicing humility, even poorly.  We have to remember that even if Lucifer is allowed to walk away from Hell (it’s probably not unreasonable to consider that God could force him back in that position if he wanted to), God’s solution is to choose a couple of other victims with no pretense of apparently just punishment.

The last character to figure into this issue is Loki, whom we discover has escaped from Odin and Thor’s captivity by switching places with the lone Japanese deity Susano-o-no-Mikoto.  Dream isn’t fooled by Loki’s ploy, and he makes a decision that will have severe consequences much later because he has to stick to his rigid code regarding hospitality.  This is the development that clinches Lucifer’s revenge on Dream.  While the resolution of Season of Mists suggests that Lucifer is just happy to be in retirement, we can’t forget that he promised he would destroy Dream, and Loki will play into that plot eventually.  I see echoes of Lucifer in Loki, as a character who created mischief for someone higher up in his mythological hierarchy and was punished for it.  The inversion with Dream, who does Loki a kindness by not alerting Odin to his escape, is that Loki can’t stand being indebted to someone else, especially someone with more power than him.  In a way, I think Dream has the misfortune of being the proxy for all the rage and vengeance that these marginalized figures can’t enact against their enemies in their own cosmologies.

As for art, this issue is particularly special because it marks the last time Mike Dringenberg does pencils for The Sandman.  For me, Dringenberg’s sketchy, slightly erratic art is the definitive look of Sandman, and I’m really sad to see him off the book after this.  Future artists are still quite good in their own unique ways, but when I imagine Dream and his supporting cast, I think of Dringenberg’s designs.

Our next issue will involve a detour from the presented issue order in the trade paperbacks, as we begin a triptych of summer stories that provide a few glimpses into the Endless’ history.

Reading “Season of Mists: Chapter 2”

Last year I got it in my head that it would be fun to do a series exploring John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.  During my time in grad school I had a brief fascination with Milton that was largely spurred on by my immersion in evangelical subculture at the time.  Much of the modern understanding of the story of the Fall is derived from Milton’s work, even though many smarter people than me have pointed out that in reality, he was more or less just writing his own fanfiction about something that he really loved (seriously, when you realize that Milton includes an extended passage explaining how Adam and Eve’s digestive systems worked so that they never actually pooped in the garden, you know you’re dealing with a superfan).  Milton’s imagining of the events leading up to the Fall depicted in Genesis are quite fantastic, and well worth looking at if you have the stomach for poetry.

Lucifer is all about personal freedom. And creeptastic teeth. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I like to think of issue #23 of The Sandman as Gaiman’s love letter to Milton’s Satan.  From the opening page depicting Dream flying through an infinite nowhere that’s evocative of the unshapen chaos that Satan traverses on his way to infiltrate the garden after he hears about the creation of humans (it’s a terrifying experience, even for a being of near infinite power) to Lucifer’s extended meditation (most of this issue is a prolonged monologue given by Lucifer while he shuts Hell down) on whether his rebellion in Heaven was actually a rebellion or just another facet of the Creator’s plan, Gaiman is riffing on ideas presented in Paradise Lost.  The entire effect of the issue, at least to me, even echoes what I thought about Book One of Paradise Lost (the first book details the aftermath of Satan’s failed rebellion and his attempt to pick up the pieces and establish his reign over Pandemonium besides the lake of fire), which was that there’s a lot about this devil guy to sympathize with (my professor in undergrad with whom I first read parts of Paradise Lost rather soundly deconstructed these feelings of sympathy in her lecture on the text, but I still think there’s a hint of admiration to be found in Milton’s voice).  In Gaiman’s writing, Lucifer comes across as imminently sympathetic.  He’s been villainized by mortals as the one responsible for their bad behavior when he honestly doesn’t give a damn, and he kind of resents the fact that for all his power in Hell, he’s still operating according to the whims of the mortals who find themselves there after they die (Lucifer insists that people who come to Hell do so because they believe they should be there, and the punishments they receive are self-directed).  Like with Milton’s Satan, you have to first accept what Gaiman’s Lucifer says at face value, but it does sound really convincing (particularly in the cosmology of The Sandman where the supernatural seems to spring from the Dreaming, which is a landscape for the collective unconscious of all mortals in the universe).

The ultimate effect is that I consciously recognize that Lucifer is still antagonizing Dream (particularly knowing what’s going to happen because he hands the key to Hell over to him), but in the moments where Lucifer steps down from his office and offers his complaint about what his existence has been like, I feel for the guy.  He’s really screwing Dream over in the process, but I don’t begrudge him deciding that he doesn’t have to be responsible for playing the adversary to a Divinity who might have manipulated him into the role in the first place.  Lucifer’s an agent of free will, and he won’t be damned if he can help it.

Besides exercising his free will (we get a lovely little scene where Lucifer demonstrates his commitment to refusing obligations that he doesn’t want by evicting a small group of fiends who don’t want to leave because they think the lord of Hell should continue fighting the bad fight, as it were; he tells them he’ll do “what he damn well likes” and sends them away), Lucifer also explores the topic of infinite punishment for finite crimes.  Besides the stubborn demons, he also has to contend with a stubborn man who insists that he must suffer for eternity to pay for his really quite gruesome litany of crimes.  Lucifer is unmoved by the catalogue, and points out that all the murders were of people who would have been long dead by this point in time anyway (he seems to have no empathy for the magnitude of suffering that the guy with the hooks in his face inflicted during his life), and everyone’s forgotten his name on top of that (it’s a nice little variation on “Ozymandias”), so the punishment has become pointless.  A little later in the issue, when Lucifer discusses his own crimes we get to see that he’s really thinking about himself, and whether it’s just that he should rule Hell for eternity because of his rebellion (he acknowledges that returning to life as an angel is out of the question probably both because he wouldn’t be welcomed back and because he’d find the servitude galling after millennia playing the bad guy for God).

Turning to the art of the issue, Kelley Jones does some incredible work with close up panels of faces in this issue.  It’s a very talky issue with a fair bit of back and forth between Lucifer and Dream, but pretty frequently Jones interjects a panel or two that consists only of a look from one of the two central characters that conveys a lot of information with just a look (also, every panel where Kelley Jones gets to draw a character’s teeth is one of my favorite because he always draws them in a way that rushes headlong into the uncanny valley, which is a wonderfully unsettling effect for a book focused on Dream and Lucifer).  Besides the lovely close-ups, Jones also draws some great hellscapes that convey the emptiness and the vastness of the place.

Next issue sees more of Jones’s signature creepy teeth and the fallout of Lucifer’s parting gift to Dream begins to make itself apparent.