The long and short of this issue is that people tend to be messed up in a lot of ways, and any religion that takes bodily mortification as a central tenet is going to exacerbate those messed up tendencies. Maybe it’s my own history showing a little bit (that does tend to happen from time to time when I read and think about things), but the sorts of abuse that this issue’s Lucifer takes on herself from all sides feel particularly heart wrenching. There are lots of ways to do fundamentalism, but they all seem easily recognizable for what they are when you’re no longer in it. The deeply embedded self loathing tends to give it away.
The cover for this final period issue plays with the iconography motif that’s always been a central element of The Wicked + The Divine‘s visual aesthetic. Framed in the imminently recognizable tradition of Roman Catholicism, the cover has Ananke and Lucifer presented in stained glass in the respective roles of penitent and absolver. This is roughly what happens inside the issue, except that Ananke predictably lacks all remorse and Lucifer (cathartically) offers no absolution. The story’s primary beats are caught in a single glass panel, much like how you would see depictions of significant events from the life of Jesus in a cathedral with the key points of each scene distilled down to a few key details that serve as visual touchstones for the stories the audience would have heard many times before. There’s a nice connection in this cover between the modern comics medium and its sequential art forebears (what are the Stations of the Cross but an old comic and The Wicked + The Divine but a pageant of suffering leading up to the deaths of gods incarnate?). You can even see the same reliance on visual motifs, a necessary component of a medium like stained glass that demands a simplified depiction of its subjects, to identify characters like Ananke’s ubiquitous mask (which she doesn’t wear at all in this story) and Lucifer’s red eyes.
For a series about gods and how we relate to them, The Wicked + The Divine up to this point has largely shied away from exploring how modern religious believers would interact with the gods as a known quantity. The one small nod we got in that direction back in the first issue with the fundamentalist assassins turned out to be a red herring, so there’s really nothing beyond this issue that explores the subject in significant depth. In the premise of the series, which posits that the Pantheon’s world is exactly like ours except that figures resembling mythological gods appear every ninety years, the question of how these incarnations impact systems of belief is left up in the air. Cassandra’s skepticism suggests that the lack of documentary evidence of the gods’ powers makes it easy for people disinclined to believe in them to ignore the whole thing, but that doesn’t explain what the effects on true believers might be. This story, focusing on medieval France and a devout Catholic woman, finally considers the Pantheon in relation to Christianity; given Lucifer’s prominence in the historical issues, this has been an open question hanging in the background of each one-shot. In 1373 it finally comes to the fore.
The issue begins much like it ends, with an enactment of Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Table, or whatever particular name for the Christian tradition of symbolically, or metaphysically, consuming the body and blood of Christ you may be familiar with). The sacrament serves as an introduction to the era and culture we’re going to be examining here; Europe is in disarray as the Black Plague has swept across it, and in Avignon a member of the Pantheon conducts her penance while awaiting her end. This Lucifer is a Catholic nun, her horns filed down to nubs on her forehead and her place in her order permanently set outside the sanctuary where the diseased rats scurry. She’s convinced of her own damnation while submitting entirely to the sovereignty of God. Where every other Lucifer has been a rebel or iconoclast, this one instead embraces her role as the defeated in a larger cosmological game.
What makes this Lucifer so striking is her sense of surety about her own identity, even before she ascends. In a flashback, the woman comes to Ananke and declares before any other words can be exchanged that she knows that she is Lucifer. The rationale for this self identification rests on her history: her mother died in childbirth, and her father resented his daughter as the cause of his wife’s death. The loathing conferred by a grieving parent onto his child became internalized to the point that she actively identifies with the fallen angel. It’s a terrible backstory, but the internalized self-loathing encouraged by a faith that requires constant self deprecation and supplication to the deity rings true. When I was an evangelical, there were certain mental gymnastics that I was in the habit of doing as part of the faith practice; in a system governed by the doctrine of utter depravity, it wasn’t unusual to meditate on how unworthy I was of salvation. Needless to say, this sort of attitude about my own self worth (really, it’s easy to devalue yourself when you have a regular mantra in your mind about your status as a helpless sinner who deserves to go to hell) did a number on me. Lucifer’s self loathing is of a piece with what I remember about the darker parts of my evangelical days; it’s only in her resorting to flagellation and other physical punishments that Lucifer’s attitude about her own being feels more extreme. While her final act serves to bring some sort of just punishment, however ephemeral, on Ananke, she spends her final breaths begging forgiveness for the crime of being who she is.
Speaking of Ananke, the version that we see in this issue is probably the most repulsive of the series to date. I know that all Anankes are more or less the same person inhabiting an endless series of bodies, but this one, with her callous reflection on how she created the Black Plague as part of an experiment with the previous Pantheon and her general indifference at the effects of her actions beyond ruling them as a mistake she’d prefer not to repeat, really angers me. We’ve seen in the Mothering Invention arc that Ananke is a ruthless killer who only cares about self-preservation, but the way that she inflicts mass death on the world on a caprice and then completely rejects any sense of guilt about her actions makes her deeply monstrous. The whole point of the issue is to do an exercise in contrasts with Lucifer, who feels guilty about everything, including stuff that she has no control over, and Ananke, who feels no remorse despite her direct responsibility for at least one massive social catastrophe and scads of murders. These two characters are worlds apart until they unite in an inverted Communion: the innocent devil delivers her corrupted body to an unrepentant sinner and burns the both of them to pure ash. It’s all very “too much” which is always what WicDiv strives for.
Next time we’ll finally get a break from doom and gloom and talk about the issue with a load of ridiculous origin stories and more than a few excellent jokes (for a certain value of excellent).