Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #45”

So we’ve made it to the end now.

Somewhere on the internet more than a few years ago now, I read a very smart person detail a theory of story that centers one specific part of any narrative: the ending.  The context there had to do with the issue of religious texts, specifically the Christian Bible, and the need for a story about a world that is ongoing to imagine some kind of ending as a way of imposing meaning on the thing that is still in progress.  The New Testament ends with Revelation, an apocalypse, because the tradition of apocalyptic literature has always been about presenting the end of one thing and its replacement with something new.  John of Patmos’s Revelation is as much a political document as it is a religious one, serving as a manifesto about the injustices of the Roman Empire at the same time that it presents this fantastical vision of old suffering passing away into new flourishing.  The modern reading of the text as a vision of a literal future robs Revelation of much of its depth and consequently cheapens the whole of Christian visions for the future.  Perhaps it’s human nature that compels us to try to flatten out the Divine into something limited and containable.  We’re just as hungry for endings as we are repelled by them because on the one hand they bring closure and on the other they eliminate mystery.

The Wicked + The Divine is a series that I had to work to get into.  I’m pretty sure I’ve written in the past that my first reading of The Faust Act was underwhelming and more than a little confused.  I knew that Jamie McKelvie’s art was totally engrossing, but I had so many questions about the world by time I reached the technicolor splash of Lucifer’s not-actually-exploded head that I wasn’t sure why this particular series was the new hotness.  Perhaps the most fortunate thing about the timing of my picking up WicDiv is that it came at a point where I didn’t have much expendable income, and my relatively small library of comics demanded that I spend more than a single read-through with them.  The second time through things made more sense, and I felt some deep affection for Laura as she struggled with feeling like the sooner her life ended the sooner she’d be done trying to make sense of it.

In the intervening years I’ve become a fairly dedicated fan of Kieron Gillen’s comics writing.  My first exposure to him was his X-Men run, which revolves around the Schism, the thoroughly gonzo Generation Hope, and the Asgard-inflected crossover event Fear Itself.  He did some wild stuff in there, and that was within the constraints one of Marvel’s biggest serialized IPs.  To this day I’ve still not read his and McKelvie’s Young Avengers, although it sits on my to-read list.  I have read the entirety of Phonogram, and I continue to have the nagging feeling that I need to go back to it again.  Die is excellent, heartbreaking fun.  His extended Star Wars saga begun on his run in Darth Vader and carried on through parts of Doctor Aphra and the main title of the space opera series is deeply engrossing.  Something about Gillen’s style and subject matter seriously clicks for me as a reader.  Moreso than his style though, I think I’ve come to appreciate a core part of his ethos as a writer: Kieron Gillen doesn’t like mystery.

I don’t mean that in the sense that he doesn’t like to write mysteries; unanswered questions are one of the great pleasures of going through any of his extended narratives.  What I mean is that Gillen is a writer who always and forever sets out to demystify what he does as a writer.  It might be a holdover from his earlier career as a journalist or just a tic in the way he processes his craft; I don’t know.  The point is that even if he doesn’t want readers to know what’s going to happen next, he always works very hard to let you know exactly what he’s doing with a story.  My great joy in reading The Wicked + The Divine was always to go back and re-read the series after each major revelation; new facets in this ornate, crystalline structure would suddenly come into view and there’d be another layer waiting to be found in the old issues.  The only real worry was that as the end approached, the limits of the story would show.  You can’t have undiscovered country forever.  The mysteries, planned to become obsolete with time, would eventually give way to the full meaning of the work.  We’ve been warned this was coming for years; it’s still not easy to accept.

In the middle of the last arc of The Wicked + The Divine, my mother died.  This was back in May, so it wasn’t too long after issue #43, the one where Laura finally shows the others how to break Ananke’s cycle, was published.  I was in the middle of doing a re-read of the series on Twitter, and somewhere in the jokes and the half-clever insights I sort of hit a wall of realization.  My relationship with my mom was left in a holding pattern for most of my adult life because I never figured out how to communicate with her in a way that invited deeper understanding about who we were as people.  We were affectionate to each other, but the relationship felt shallow, at least to me, and I had settled into a kind of complacence about it all.  The finality of her death shocked me, not precisely because her life was over, but because the possibility of adding new dimensions to our relationship was gone.  The end came, and now there’s just the meaning of our shared time to turn over until my own life is done.  It’s no wonder that Gillen’s chosen to end The Wicked + The Divine with a funeral; how else could you finish something so preoccupied with mortality and ephemerality and the search for meaning in chaos?

They’re so cute together. (Cover by Olivia Jaimes)

Turning to the issue itself (what a long preamble), I feel slightly wary of posting an image of the cover here because it resolves one of the great tensions of the series: does Laura survive?  Monthly readers already know the answer to this; she does, and she has a long life after all the business with the Pantheon.  Trade readers, like I was before I decided I just couldn’t wait for the final arc to be done, don’t yet know what happens, and the twisty, turn-y nature of WicDiv kind of demands that the spoiler wall be respected.  Also, it’s been pretty clear in the online milieu that Gillen and McKelvie have wanted to keep the cover under wraps for now as well.  What can be posted here is the alternate cover by Olivia Jaimes which nods towards one of the most delightful turns of the epilogue, the eventual romance between Laura and Cassandra.  While their friendship has been pretty central to the story at various pivotal points, this last revelation marks it as a key anchor point in Laura’s character arc.  Issue #44 ended with the implication that Laura and Eleanor were OTP, but Gillen swerves that ship pretty deftly in the finale.  It’s most beautiful specifically because the elision of Laura’s life from the end of the Pantheon up to Cassandra’s funeral leaves plenty of space for anyone who prefers Eleanor and Laura together to imagine the shape and length of that relationship.  We only know that it ended; the rest is up to the individual’s headcanon.  There is a little bit of undiscovered country left for us to sit with.

The question of Laura’s series of one-and-onlies points towards the larger theme of this coda: all the survivors of the Pantheon, while bound together by the shared experience, have gone on to lead whole other lives independent of what they did when they were cool teens.  For readers, the great mass of The Wicked + The Divine is the story of the eighteen months between Laura’s attendance at Amaterasu’s New Year’s 2014 concert and her incarceration for Ananke’s murder after the confrontation with Minerva at Valhalla in mid-2015; for the characters, there’s forty years after that which both add layers of significance to their youth and diminish it as a part of larger lives.  The meaning of it all isn’t clear to them because they kept going, and examining, and living.  Cassandra’s death is an occasion to pause and reflect on the facet of the cast’s lives that the readers care about, but while it signals one kind of closure, everyone else continues on with other things.  There’s no great secret or meaning to be found here beyond the usual reaffirmations of human connection and bonding.  Zahid still mourns for Valentine and his ruthless love; Umar is haunted by spirits from his past; Jon can’t help but continue to make things just as Aruna has persisted through everything to make art; Zoe and Meredith have moved on from a moment to which they were never sure they belonged.  Everyone is just busy living because they’ve no idea what to do with an ending.

And it’s okay.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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 #42”

I like to think about The Wicked + The Divine‘s individual issues largely in terms of how they reflect various characters’ arcs.  This issue features major developments across three characters who’ve been various levels of antagonistic to Laura across the span of the series.  One of them is about hitting an inflection point in the transition from heel to face while the other two are studies in how character arcs can end either in epiphany or ignominy.

This is probably the creepiest cover that McKelvie and Wilson have done yet. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue is a portrait of one of Woden’s Valkyries.  It’s never been extremely clear how consistently individual Valkyries wear specific colors, but the pink trim suggests to me that this is supposed to be Eir, the woman who had the misfortune of being Sakhmet’s handler way back in issue #17.  Her face is splattered with someone’s blood.  We’ve seen this motif before on the cover of issue #35 where 1923’s Minerva looked gleefully murderous.  Knowing what we know about Minerva and Ananke at this point, that attitude is disturbing but understandable.  The Valkyrie, by contrast, looks totally impassive.  There’s no fear, no anger, no joy, nothing in her expression.  It’s way more chilling than any of the other relatively gruesome covers that have come out across the series.

This is the moment where Woden, having been given due warning about the danger he’s in, decides that he is still totally capable of pulling this Pantheon ruse off. “Men like you” indeed. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because we’re speeding towards the series conclusion, and this is a story that’s always been explicit about the need for a high body count, we get two major character deaths in this issue.  They’re the central study in contrasting character arcs, so let’s take them in turn.  I’ll begin with Woden since his arc feels significantly less complex than what we get at the issue’s end.  Woden has been the unrepentant jerk of the Pantheon since the series’s beginning; he manipulates women for his own gratification, he sells his allies out for minor advantage, and he betrayed his son for the sake of a few months of luxury and power.  At every turn he has resisted revealing some nobler agenda; the only redeeming qualities that he seems to have are a shallow affection for Cassandra and the fact that despite all the terrible stuff he’s done to Jon, his son still wants him to be okay.  Despite all of these negative qualities, Gillen manages to give Woden a death that’s both tragic and fitting at the same time.  Given every opportunity to make a better choice, Woden to the very end makes the calculation that he thinks will give him more power heedless of others’ warnings.  His death here is grotesque and self inflicted and entirely unnecessary if he had just had the good sense to take a genuine gift instead of trying to leverage more advantage.  There’s no redemptive moment for the creepy middle-aged dude who hangs around with a bunch of teens, which is probably precisely what Gillen wants given his transition away from writing stories about young people with WicDiv‘s impending end.  About the only sympathetic thing I can say about Woden is that his death is extremely gruesome and horrifying.  Everyone else in the Pantheon that’s died has at least gotten relatively swift ends; Woden gets torn apart by the very women he victimized the most.  It’s all ugly and brutal and reveals pretty much nothing new about a character who told us from his first appearance exactly what he was.

Nergal finally understands the deal with making grown up decisions. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Contrast all of that with the issue’s major sympathetic death; Nergal, upon learning that he’ll be losing his god powers as part of Laura’s plan to take down Ananke and that he’s the only Underworld god left who can do resurrections, runs away from the rest of the group to visit Dionysus in the hospital.  Dio’s been brain dead since his big hero moment in issue #32, which is only mostly dead in this case.  Having established with the Morrigan that the Underworld gods can resurrect other gods, but only at the cost of their own lives, it becomes immediately apparent what Nergal intends to do.  He’s spent the entire series being terrified of the death sentence that the Morrigan put on him when she asked Ananke to bring him into the Pantheon; avoiding it death has been the chief motivator behind almost every bad decision Nergal’s made since his ascendance.  Choosing to use his power to save his best friend at the cost of his own life marks a complete reversal from what Nergal attempted to do with Inanna.  It’s also the completion of a redemptive character arc that mirrors Woden’s totally unrepentant one.  Both characters’ initial appearances are built on tropes surrounding abusive and controlling men.  Our introduction to Nergal as Baphomet involved him gleefully brandishing the apparent severed head of his female lover, and from there his early appearances revolved around inviting Laura deeper and deeper into a series of at best unsafe and at worst self-destructive choices.  Despite these early parallels to Woden, Nergal also reveals at every turn in his own story that while he makes many very bad, selfish choices, he has a genuine, if weak, desire to do right by the people he cares about.  Coming into his own as someone who can be self sufficient (even though that metamorphosis is incomplete when we catch up with him in issue #41) is a major accomplishment given those beginnings, and his totally independent decision to offer Dionysus his chance at returning to a normal life marks the completion of that development.  I’m really sad that Nergal dies, and I’m really happy that he does it in a way that gives final closure to a throughline of his character that’s been present from the beginning.

The third character arc of the issue belongs to Baal, and unlike the previous two, he makes it to the last page intact, which means that his story isn’t finished yet.  There are still some questions left to answer regarding Baal’s development: once the crisis is over, assuming he survives, how is he going to square his child murdering with the fact that he was completely manipulated by Ananke?  Baal is a character fueled almost exclusively by his passion, and while in the moment of realization that he’s been doing evil things needlessly he seems pretty set on punishing himself, it’s hard to judge how other factors like Inanna’s survival and just having some time to process how Ananke is at fault for all of his actions since the beginning of the Recurrence.  While I was initially skeptical that Inanna wasn’t just the purely good person that he appears to be, I’ve come around to thinking that if anyone in this mess deserves to have a happy ending, it’s him and Baal.  I don’t know how likely it is that Gillen will give them that ending (above all else, fear hope), or even what would need to happen for Baal to both be able to forgive himself enough to be happy with Inanna and receive an appropriate consequence for murdering children.  There may not be a way to thread that needle.

There’s a lot going on inside Baal’s head at this moment. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

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 #40”

If you’re a fan of mainstream comics, there’s a strong probability that you’ve read Watchmen.  It’s the quintessential deconstruction of the superhero genre packed into a super structuralist comic form.  One thing about Watchmen that has stuck with me all these years is the understanding that while Moore foregrounds the masked adventurers in his story, he’s far more concerned with the way they impact the lives of the ordinary people who briefly encounter them.  The penultimate issue of Watchmen focuses on the final moments of a collection of disparate characters as they fall victim to the larger-than-life plans of Adrian Veidt.  Where Veidt, one of the superheroic elite, is reveling in his own self absorbed special specialness, ordinary people are facing the consequences of their brushes with masked adventurers.  Kieron Gillen, surprising absolutely no one, takes tons of inspiration from Alan Moore’s work in general and Watchmen in particular all the time, and the fortieth issue of The Wicked + The Divine feels in so many ways like Gillen’s answer to Moore’s New York street corner.

In a further nod to how he internalizes parts of Persephone’s identity, Tom is colored in neon pinks and cool green-blues that evoke Persephone’s power set. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Beginning with the cover, this issue de-centers the intrigues of the Pantheon in favor of a class of people who have generally been relegated to background status for most of the series: the fans.  We’re continuing with the traditional front facing head portrait, but the subject here isn’t a god at all; it’s Tom, a fan whose story centers the issue.  Tom’s attire is extremely mundane in comparison to the high fashion that the gods typically wear; he sports a plain crew neck t-shirt with no extra accessories.  On his face he’s painted the markings that we’ve come to associate with Laura as Persephone: the red triangle covering and extending from the right eye with the three dots located both below the eye and above the eyebrow.  It’s a distinct reminder that in the last issue Laura gave up her divinity and all the trappings of that identity.  The thing that immediately springs to my mind when I see Tom in this particular makeup is the implication that Persephone has ceased to be an identity belonging just to Laura, and now it’s diffused itself among the fandom (this reading gets support in the issue when Tom engages in some self reflection about how he identifies with Persephone’s aspect as the Destroyer).  For all the ugly parts of the Pantheon’s revels, they still serve as a source of inspiration for their followers.

Our issue’s hero and his slightly obnoxious bestie. That Nathan holds the envelope directly in front of Tom’s face on camera says so much about his awareness of space. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The central premise of the issue is that Baal, in a final attempt to kill the Great Darkness once and for all (an idea that Minerva privately finds laughable), plans to kill an entire stadium full of fans (all over 18, he insists because he’s done killing children, as if he isn’t just a child himself trying to muddle through this mess) at his last performance.  The story of this event is told through archival footage pulled from various sources, including Tom and his friend Nathan’s cell phone videos of their experiences leading up to the concert.  Mixed in with the video of our protagonist for the issue are things like security camera feeds showing Baal, Minerva, and Woden plotting out the show and news interviews with fans who have come to see the last Baal performance, all of which previously featured as incidental characters who narrowly survived encounters with the gods.  The issue’s shot through with this sense of foreboding as everyone recounts their brushes with divinity, many of which involved nearly dying (also in the mix is a middle-aged Asian woman who’s strongly implied to be David Blake’s ex-wife, because even characters who’ve only been mentioned can’t escape this particular vortex).  Everyone’s excited to be present to witness the beginning of the end of the 2013 Pantheon, and meanwhile back on the first page there’s a caption describing all of this as “the events of the O2 disaster.”

You can see how the whole setup is extremely reminiscent of the street corner scene in Watchmen.  We have our minor characters with their mundane lives having a moment in the spotlight of the story, experiencing some epiphanies about how they want to change going forward (Tom, for his part, goes through a lot of personal growth on his buddy’s camera that’s meant to mirror the emotional journey Laura’s gone through in the last arc) as the issue careens on towards the inevitable catastrophe.  In the run-up to the issue’s climax, Gillen and McKelvie do another layout trick with a couple pages that break the typical panel reading sequence in ways that clearly caused some frustrations for the guided view on Comixology.  Images of the fans both before and during the performance (when they’re all blissed out on Baal’s performance amplified by Woden’s mimicry of Dionysus’s hive mind powers) are interspersed with shots of the arena and Baal’s retreat from the show in a pattern that feels like a light remix on the 1-2-3-4 sequences of issue #8 and the Imperial Phase montage in issue #27 that gives the whole scene a chaotic, discordant feel.  Things are happening, and there’s sort of a sequence to them, but it’s meant to be much more of a sensory experience of the event that culminates with the explosion of the arena.

Baal 101s utilitarian ethics and fragile masculinity in his video diaries. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While Tom is the focal point of the issue, there’s also a significant amount of space given to Baal to explore how he has to psych himself up to do the thing.  We’ve known for a few issues now that Baal is a child murderer because he believes it’s the only thing that’s been keeping the Great Darkness at bay.  Yes, he’s morally compromised in a way that’s hard to redeem, but we understand that Baal’s dealing with some serious self loathing on top of the child sacrifice mixed up with total conviction that he has no other options for protecting the world.  His final performance is an attempt to trade one kind of atrocity for another in some weird utilitarian bid to feel like he’s done right (Baal explicitly justifies his decision in terms of pure numbers; twenty thousand lives are far fewer than eight billion).  Paired with appeals to his deceased father (the Great Darkness’s first victim) and the need to be “man enough,” it’s clear that the dispassionate part of Baal’s reasoning is mostly just a cover for his need to feel secure in his masculinity.  Baal is the most contradictory god on this point; he exudes confidence rooted in masculinity as part of his public image with nearly perfect fidelity.  It’s unsurprising that his deepest insecurities come from his failures as a protector of his family and the fact that his most intimate romantic relationship was with another man.  Baal’s unease with his sexuality is totally tied up in his overcompensatory gender performance (contrast all this with the plot between Tom, who is openly bisexual, and his friend Julie, whose romantic rejection of him he uses as an opportunity for growth and strengthening of their friendship with an explicit rejection of the toxic masculinity that Baal would be far more tempted to embrace).

Tom is also an amateur Pantheon analyst. He’s probably better at it than I am. Also, check out the Persephone color scheme on his blanket. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

One small side detail in the issue that’s sure to become important in the future is Minerva addressing someone off panel about her plans to create a new plague (likely as a response to the ever-growing complexity of the world, much like when she created the Black Plague).  The person being addressed is a bit of a mystery; on my first reading I thought it might be Jon Blake, but that doesn’t make sense because he’s securely in Woden’s possession at this point, and neither Woden nor Baal are aware of Minerva’s true identity (so revealing anything about herself to Jon would be counterproductive).  My speculation at this point is that she’s actually addressing the 1831 Woden’s creature whom Ananke apparently captured in 1923 when that Pantheon’s Woden mistook it for the zeitgeist.  That’s a dangling thread from the historic specials that I expect to come back some time very soon, and I will be extremely disappointed if it doesn’t because I’ve been waiting for resolution on the Frankenstein issue for over a year now (also, I just remembered that Percy Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” and the wheels are spinning on further connections that Gillen’s built into this series; I am a nerd).

In the mean time, Gillen has given us a rare happy ending with this issue.  The O2 arena does get blown up, and the thing that Baal calls the Great Darkness appears to be destroyed along with it, but the crowd emerges before the explosion after Laura appears and leads them to safety with her not-quite-god powers.  Unlike Moore, who chooses to kill off his mundane characters to underscore the collateral damage that his megalomaniacal masked adventurers inflict as a side effect of their fully enacted power fantasies, Gillen actually lets his background characters live long enough to enjoy the ways they’ve been changed by the gods.  There are still five issues left after this one, but for the moment we can rest on an okay ending.

This is the bit where Malcolm Long runs off to help stop a fight. Like, straight up, this is that moment recapitulated but with a lot less explicit violence and marital strife. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: The Funnies”

Whenever I think about anthology comics and how you go about discussing them, I feel a little stressed.  This is essentially a short story collection, but it’s in graphic form; some of the pieces are one or two pages that extend just long enough to deliver one good gag, while others go on for several pages with a steady stream of jokes that punctuate the beats of a more detailed story.  Do I talk about all the stories?  Do I skip over the obviously one-note bits or try to consider how they work in concert with the rest of the collection to achieve the issue’s stated premise?  Is this all way more thought than a literal comic book requires for the sake of hitting a word count?

The thing about this being a purely comedic special issue set off from the rest of the highly melodramatic and tragic regular series is that there might be an inclination to write it off as nonessential reading.  Aside from the stinger explaining the origin of Laura’s cracked phone screen (why would she be following a goth comic book writer who enjoys making bad puns on Twitter?  Everything about Gillen’s online persona seems to fall outside Laura’s areas of interest), all of these stories are unequivocally extracanonical.  You won’t find any new plot tidbits tucked away in this issue like you can in the historical specials; in fact, most of the major revelations of the series’s second half serve primarily as subtle cues to sight gags that are easy to overlook if you’re not actively thinking about them.  In that regard, you don’t have to read The Funnies.  What the issue does do that I think makes it an important part of the series as a whole is provide a platform for someone besides the core creative team to play with the universe and demonstrate the transformative tendencies of fandom and fanworks.  Granted, these folks are both colleagues and friends of Gillen and McKelvie within the comics industry, but their status as professionals doesn’t impede their ability to act as fans.

For the record, I think Baphomet has the right idea when it comes to Gillen’s shenanigans. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for the issue sets the tone of everything with a triptych of Laura, Cassandra, and Baphomet reacting in their own ways to a bad pun that Gillen has thrown out into the digital ether for his followers to collectively admire/groan over.  Cassandra appears outraged at the inanity of it while Baphomet, Gillen’s fictional avatar for his punning predilection, is enjoying a deep belly laugh.  Laura stands in the center, holding her phone and thoroughly nonplussed by what’s crossed her screen.  The general tone is set immediately, and we know what we should expect: nothing is going to get too serious in these pages, and you’ll have more fun if you just accept that some of it will be unapologetically stupid.  There will be no tears for once, and the creators will get some gentle ribbing as their foibles are put on display.

In the interest of keeping things brief, let’s do a few thoughts on each of the stories; some will warrant a little more thought than others.

“The Wicked + The Canine” – Gillen partners with Erica Henderson (most recently notable for her run as primary artist on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) to do a what-if style story that takes the core premise of WicDiv and applies it to dogs instead of cool teens.  This concept works just well enough to get in a couple of jokes about what it’s like being a dog owner, and then in typically Gillen fashion it turns on a bit of high drama and fear that he’s going to have Ananke throw a sack of animals into a river.  That doesn’t happen, and everyone who loves dogs breathes a sigh of relief.  As someone who is firmly in the category of people who thinks that dogs are just fine, I feel pretty comfortable laughing at the horrific premise because of course Ananke is that awful; her multi-generational murder spree (that, we mustn’t forget since the last issue, includes deliberately spreading the Black Plague across Europe) is more than enough to mark her as monstrous.  Throwing a sack of dogs into a river is terrible and amoral, but I just can’t bring myself to be more horrified by this mock atrocity than the stuff that Ananke actually does.  Also, “The Wicked + The Canine” is a decent pun, but I feel very off put by the fact that it doesn’t have the same cadence as the series title, which would be the cherry on the top.

“This is totally a good idea.” (Artwork & color by Erica Henderson)

It’s a stupid joke, but I still think it’s funny. (Story & artwork by Lizz Lunney)

The Wicker + The Divine” – Absurdism really works for some folks, and this is probably the most absurd of the shorts in the issue.  I kind of bounce off it, but I think the panel of Ananke as a swing is fantastic; it’s the perfect callback to one of the most absurd parts of our introduction to Ananke’s “Yer a god, Harry” schtick.

“The Lost God” – I admit that I enjoy this story way more than I probably should.  It feels very much like a Chip Zdarsky story, and it’s his opportunity to roast Gillen and McKelvie, who dunk on him pretty much every time he collaborates with them.  Story-Kieron’s overwrought puns are almost of a piece with the actual Twitter puns that Gillen writes, except they go about two steps past where the punchline should land.  Story-Jamie’s status as Kieron’s hired muscle rather hilariously underplays McKelvie’s importance to the look and feel of WicDiv.  Having this turn out to be an origin story for how they got Matt Wilson to be their colorist is simply delightful.  Adding an extra layer of fun to the setup is how Zdarsky’s Kieron and Jamie have a dynamic that’s sort of a fun house mirror version of the friendship between David Kohl and Kid-With-Knife in Phonogram.

Don’t ask me why this panel tickles me so much. (Artwork by Chip Zdarsky, flats by Becka Kinzie)

“Gentle Annie Vs the World” – This one’s a one page story by Chrissy Williams, the editor on WicDiv.  The joke is that Gentle Annie, with her peculiar slang, would be terrible in a variety of ever more important jobs requiring clear communication skills.  The joke works well enough.

“Making a Difference” – Aside from the “Baal should not work with children” joke at the end, I bounced off this story.

“5 Things Everyone Who’s Lived With Sakhmet Will Understand” – Told in the form of a Buzzfeed style listicle, the concept is that Sakhmet, a full grown human woman, acts like a house cat.  It’s cute.

13 Go Mad in Wiltshire” – This one’s a Hanna-Barbera pastiche where the Pantheon goes to investigate a mystery in the style of the Scooby-Doo gang.  There are multiple tongue-in-cheek references to the foibles of various characters, from Baal’s child murdering to Laura’s attraction to pretty much everyone she meets.  The resolution involves everyone discovering that it was Woden scheming to murder them all along, except no one believes that Woden would actually be a balding middle-aged dude.  Ananke and Minerva are never found out to be part of the murder conspiracy.  It’s a most delightful story that’s best enjoyed for the way it pokes fun at how ridiculously obtuse the gods are when it comes to paying attention to things that might be bad for them.

My favorite detail about this whole story is Dionysus as Shaggy, even if he’s mostly a background character. This panel shows off most of the group’s designs nicely. (Story & artwork by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris)

“Guilty Pleasure Song” – A short two-page story that features a number of one off jokes about the gods’ personalities while building to another jab at Gillen, this time focusing on his penchant for thinking deeply about our relationships to the music we listen to.  There’s also a gag about McKelvie being perpetually overworked, which I think is more just a commentary on the state of professional comics artists in general.  His totally-not-Captain-Marvel apparel is a nice nod to the other thing for which McKelvie’s presently most famous.

Secret Origin” – Laura breaks her phone because wordplay makes her angry.

I really just want McKelvie to draw pictures of people reacting to stuff on their phones so that I can respond to texts from my friends with images of much cooler people reacting to whatever I just read. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)