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.
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).
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.
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.