Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #31”

One of the major challenges of doing this issue-by-issue analysis, which in itself is nowhere near comprehensive, is keeping my commentary focused just on what has been established in the story up to whatever point I’m at.  For my personal reading, I consume the whole thing with a quickness; case in point, my copy of The Wicked + The Divine‘s seventh volume arrived this past week, and I read the whole thing in an evening.  Folks who are current on the series understand that the ending of each successive arc, especially in the back half of the series, recontextualizes the whole thing as long running mysteries are resolved.  We’ll see a major taste of that in a few issues when we wrap up Imperial Phase Part 2, but until we get to that point, I’m trying to maintain the fiction that I’m only working with what’s been revealed by this point in the story.  It’s difficult, especially after finishing the series’s penultimate arc, because I’m now looking at even these relatively recent issues in light of what I know.  It’s sort of like trying to watch Lost after you’ve seen the entire series; on one level you can enjoy the tension of the moment, but you can never get the original sense of mystery back (at least in The Wicked + The Divine‘s case, I trust that Gillen and McKelvie have a satisfying plan in place).

Anyway, let’s get on with the story.

Poor self care habits aside, Dio clearly has the coolest powers. Let’s take a moment and enjoy him at a high point before things go south. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

As it goes, we’re hitting the crescendo of the entire “Imperial Phase” arc.  This issue sees the sky gods confronting Sakhmet about her murder orgy and the research gods (that is a terrible classification, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the weird alliance between Cassandra, Woden, and Dionysus) put on the massive show they’ve been planning at Valhalla in a bid to figure out what the murder machine does.  There are, of course, betrayals of various sorts, and we even get our first god death since Persephone ripped Ananke apart; it’s a big issue in what will be a series of big issues.

Who knew that a reflective helmet with no visible expression could look so smug? (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

This issue’s cover features Woden in a relatively restrained green neon trimmed suit with coat tails.  It’s his third appearance on a standard cover, and it’s only slightly less threatening than that one where the shot’s centered on him cracking his knuckles like he’s about to get into a fist fight with someone.  The whole pose evokes the image of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, with the dome of his helmet simulating a bald head and his fingers steepled like he’s totally pleased with some devious plan that he’s secretly executing.  You can just image him hissing “Excellent!” to himself.  The inset panel, which has been gradually losing its coherence, is totally overrun with circuitry the recalls the same visual style of Woden’s various creations.  We know that things have been spirally, but it’s obvious there’s no going back at this point.

I didn’t really discuss the ongoing subplot of Laura and Sakhmet in the last issue because there wasn’t a whole lot of development of that thread besides the revelation that Laura has kept quiet after she finds Sakhmet in her apartment.  The timeline of this arc is extremely compressed, almost as much as in Rising Action, so it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a lot of movement on the Sakhmet front.  In this issue the weekend has passed (Amaterasu’s party happened on a Friday night, and Sakhmet showed up at Laura’s on Saturday), and Sakhmet is getting bored with lying low.  She decides to leave to go on one of her night walks (like the one that ended with her eating her father many issues ago), and Laura takes the solitude as an opportunity to tell Baal what she knows.  We only get to see Laura’s side of the conversation, but it’s clear from her expressions that Baal is less than pleased that she’s been hiding the Pantheon’s resident mass murderer.  Laura justifies her delay in telling Baal with the excuse that she thought she might be able to talk some sense into Sakhmet or at least was afraid her girlfriend might kill her (both are reasonable excuses on their face, but Laura immediately admits she’s unsure about her real motivations); either way, she’s dropping a hot tip now.

Dionysus is always ready to drop good friend 101 advice, even in the middle of an awkward “hypothetical” conversation about his own friendships. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

With the research plot line we get our regular reminder about Dionysus’s primary flaw: he doesn’t take care of himself when he has any reason to believe he could be helping someone else.  This characteristic manifests in his insistence that the show go on despite Cassandra’s observation that Dionysus is way too exhausted to perform and Woden’s uncharacteristic suggestion that they delay the show until their living dance floor is more stable.  Dionysus insists that he’s fine to do the show, and then we get a couple of extended scenes where Cassandra finds herself discussing the last thing she would want to discuss with either of her research partners: relationships.  Woden, pulling his signature annoying move of being right about something, points out to Cassandra that Dionysus is pushing himself so hard because he’s in love with her.  Then, to further debase this comedy of manners, Woden lets slip that he’s also attracted to Cassandra, although he’s quick to declare that it’s purely a physical thing, and she doesn’t need to worry about managing his  shriveled misanthropic feelings too.  This pseudo-love triangle among the researchers is a weird take on the trope as Cassandra is already in a closed relationship with the other Norns, and her two would-be suitors are perfect foils to one another.

Dionysus, I love your altruism and want to shake you for having no sense of self preservation. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

I think I’ve discussed in the past the ways that Woden and Dionysus are inverse mirrors of each other, from their attitude towards relationships to their feelings about the nature of their powers to the ways that they interact specifically with Cassandra.  Woden can’t resist bringing the uncomfortable relationship dynamics to the surface just to amuse himself while Dionysus, in a scene that’s heartwarming on a lot of levels, explains to Cassandra that good friendship requires acting in a way that respects the wants and needs of others regardless of one’s feelings about them.  It’s a scene where we get to see Dionysus at his best, even though he looks terrible and we know that bad things must be impending for him.  When the show begins and Woden co-opts Dionysus’s hive mind to literally take control of the crowd, our worst fears get confirmed; never trust the Nordic jerkface because he’s always looking to get the best advantage for himself.

Given Sakhmet’s character arc, this single panel showing her being contemplative speaks volumes about the scene it opens. We’re intruding on an extremely private moment with a character who has never wanted anyone else to have access to her internal life. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

We catch up with Sakhmet at the British museum, the same place where she had her first encounter with an icon of her namesake as a child.  We learn that this is a special place for Sakhmet, a spot that she retreats to when she wants to be alone (that Sakhmet has a contemplative side shouldn’t be surprising, but I don’t think it’s ever been seen before now; she’s usually very much invested in hedonism and self-medication for coping with her personal traumas).

This panel is all that Amaterasu gets in the way of achieving self knowledge before her violent death, which is both incredibly sad and incredibly funny. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The sky gods, thanks to Laura’s information, have caught up with her, and they’ve decided that Amaterasu will make first contact in an attempt to bring Sakhmet in peacefully.  Given Amaterasu’s long history of completely failing to come through during crises, this seems like a really bad plan.  Add to that her penchant for insensitive, oblivious blather during even low stakes conversations, and we can pretty reliably predict how this all goes down.   The only asset Amaterasu brings to the table is the fact that she’s the best performer in the group, and one of her specific talents is inciting pleasant emotions in her audience.  It’s almost enough to work except that as soon as she believes that Sakhmet’s no longer a threat (Sakhmet is always a threat) she stops doing her mojo and starts in with the colonialist junk along with fond memories of her father, which are perfectly Amaterasu and the precisely wrong things to say to someone with Sakhmet’s history.  Really, it seems like the sky gods pick up the idiot ball for a moment with this plan, but then you remember that Minerva has a vendetta against Amaterasu for abandoning her when Ananke was rampaging and Baal just isn’t a terribly cunning person, and it begins to look like Amaterasu was meant to go in and get killed by Sakhmet.

The moment of Amaterasu’s death is upsetting in a lot of ways (it’s graphic, destructive, and probably avoidable). It’s also entirely predictable because its preceded by her signature talent for saying precisely the wrong thing to the wrong person without any real effort at all. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Perhaps the only thing that’s even more Amaterasu than her carelessness being what finally, finally gives her a comeuppance is the fact that as she lashes out in her death throes she utterly destroys priceless Egyptian artifacts.  If that’s not a commentary on the utter vindictive nonsense that white people engage in to try to hold on to their cultural hegemony, I don’t know what is.

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #30”

Issue #30 does a pretty thorough examination of some of my favorite characters in this series: Baphomet and Dionysus.  Baphomet has been largely off panel since the end of the Rising Action arc, primarily because, we discovered a few issues back, he told the Morrigan about his flings with Laura and the Morrigan did not take kindly to the news.  Dionysus has been around, but mostly in a supporting role within Cassandra’s plotline; he continues to be the cheerful helper of anyone who needs him (except for Woden, because nobody likes Woden), and here we finally get an examination of what that means in terms of personal cost.

The design on the Morrigan’s gown is almost reminiscent of Baphomet’s goat skull icon, but that’s probably looking too deep. The void stares back and all that. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Because the majority of real estate in this issue is dedicated to Baphomet and the Morrigan, she graces the cover with her flock of ravens bursting out of the inset panel that’s become familiar throughout Imperial Phase.  She appears in her regal aspect here (neither Badb nor Gentle Annie have graced any of the McKelvie/Wilson covers, although they are prominent in a few guest covers), which is appropriate given the tone that this cover series is trying to evoke.  The gods present themselves with their best foot forward, although the Morrigan, like Sakhmet, isn’t fully able to appear less than threatening.  While she’s posed as though in the middle of a ballroom dance, the cover’s focus rests on her hand, which bears a taloned gauntlet.  Like we see in the issue, violence is always imminent even when the Morrigan appears to be controlling herself.

Someday I’ll manage to discuss an issue of WicDiv without taking a tangent about Cassandra. Maybe after she dies (I hope that’s not soon). (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Fraction, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Before jumping into the primary plot of Dionysus sitting around in the dark while the Morrigan’s various aspects come to talk to him, we begin the issue with a scene where Cassandra and Woden discuss the logistics of their upcoming show.  Besides the slightly scary prospect of Woden nearly perfecting his imitation of Dionysus’s miracles, we get a bit where Woden points out to Cassandra that she isn’t the utilitarian she thinks she is.  It’s an interesting point that Gillen doesn’t dwell on very much here; Cassandra’s primary philosophical trait is that she’s a nihilist.  She thinks the larger universe is indifferent to existence and people delude themselves when they try to attribute larger meaning to their lives.  This is not the philosophy of a person whom you would typically label an idealist, but in Cassandra’s case I think it works (curse you, Woden, for saying something I agree with!).  While Cassandra is definitely prone to dehumanizing people when she gets caught up in solving them, the level of rage and frustration she expresses when others don’t listen to her suggests that she does care deeply about at least some folks.  Despite all good sense telling her and everyone else that Laura Wilson is bound on a path of complete self immolation since her transformation into Persephone, Cassandra continually tries to intervene and support her friend.  During the Norns’ debut during Ragnarock, one of the key thoughts that saturates the crowd is “We only have each other.”  Granted, that thought’s immediately juxtaposed with “It’s never enough,” but this appeal to community no matter how small is a central part of Cassandra’s character.  So yeah, she’s a nihilistic idealist.

Gentle Annie’s the nice one, but somehow I don’t have a good feeling about her kind word to Dionysus. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Fraction, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Moving beyond Cassandra’s quibbling with Woden over how they compare as users of people, the issue’s main event is the series of conversations that Dionysus has in the dark.  In the previous issue he resolved that he would stay in the Underground and wait until the Morrigan allowed him to speak with Baphomet, and because Dionysus has an iron will when it comes to helping out his buddies (and Baphomet is his oldest buddy in the Pantheon), she eventually relents.  True, Dionysus suffers some abuse of his own before we get to that point, but he’s ultimately successful.  The sequence that leads to this moment is weird and a little nonsensical from a non-mythical point of view; Dionysus declares his intent to see Baphomet, and then he plonks himself down on the ground to wait until the Morrigan changes her mind.  The whole thing reads like a test of wills, but with the added twist that the Morrigan’s will is split into three personas which operate more or less independently of one another.  We can surmise from the bruises and scratches that Baphomet appeared with at Amaterasu’s party that the Morrigan’s default aspect and Badb are in agreement that no one else should see him, but Gentle Annie hasn’t made an appearance since the Morrigan was trapped in Woden’s god cage back in issue #16.  This makes sense; she’s had reason to be angry for a very long time, but besides the pacifist element of Annie’s personality it’s important to remember that she also embodies the Morrigan’s role as a death god (remember that it was Gentle Annie who revived the burned cop during Baphomet’s debut show).  Annie doesn’t need to display malice or indulge in violence because she holds power over life and death.  That she appears to Dionysus here is significant.

Speaking of Dionysus, this issue serves as a good moment to look at his character more in depth as well.  I am a major fan of Dionysus, primarily because he’s so incredibly cheerful and intent on helping people; at the same time, Gillen’s made it abundantly clear since Dionysus’s first appearance that the dance floor god is tragically incapable of taking proper care of himself.  Dionysus doesn’t sleep, instead keeping himself constantly awake through a combination of willpower, energy drinks, and probably a little bit of god magic (sleep deprivation has deleterious effects within a couple weeks of sustained consciousness; he has to be doing something supernatural to keep his body from literally shutting down).  There’s an element of carpe diem to the whole affair, as though Dionysus, aware of the limited time he has available to enjoy his godhood, just can’t bear to waste any of it.  More prominent though is the self sacrificial strain of thought in Dionysus’s personal philosophy.  In many ways he’s more aligned with the inspirational gods like Baal and Amaterasu, but unlike those high flyers, Dionysus takes his role as a divine conduit to an extreme level.  You can certainly credit Baal with having a major sense of obligation because of his personal stake in stopping the Great Darkness, and Amaterasu, for all her egregious flaws as a human being, does attribute larger significance to her godhood, but neither of them submits to the immense personal cost that Dionysus takes on to maintain those ecstatic parties for the sake of his followers.  He wants everyone to experience the joy that’s available to them; he just doesn’t have a proper mechanism for giving himself a break from doling out his gifts.

“Crowd-hearted” indeed. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Tragically for Dionysus, the only person he knows who has ever taken the time to ask after him is also the Pantheon’s resident whipping boy, Baphomet.  A pariah in the public world because of his assault on that police officer, and a prisoner of his girlfriend in his private life, Baphomet doesn’t have much opportunity to act in ways that reflect his best self (I know he’s trash in a lot of ways, but I still want to see the good in Baphomet).  Dionysus’s loyalty to him is one of the few reminders available to us that there is a person capable of kindness beneath those obnoxious aviator sunglasses.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #29”

We begin the second half of the “Imperial Phase” arc immediately after where the first one left off.  The morning after Laura ghosts from Amaterasu’s party, she wakes in bed with someone who was going for a Lucifer sort of look and is immediately informed of the massacre that Sakhmet perpetrated the previous night.  It’s pretty immediately obvious that things are way more serious in the light of this particular (not so) random act of violence seeing as the victims were ordinary mortals and not super powered gods who usually draw the line at extreme levels of property destruction.

This picture of Sakhmet is pretty lit if you ignore the copious amounts of blood. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for the issue continues the motif that was established for the arc’s first half, although a few things become immediately apparent.  Sakhmet poses in regalia (and unlike the subjects on the covers of the previous six issues, she’s actually the primary subject of this issue as well despite being off panel most of the time) but her garments are soaked in blood below the waste line.  We don’t get to forget that she just committed the cardinal sin of the Pantheon: harming regular mortals.  Also with this issue’s cover we see that the inset image, which always represents a visual motif from the depicted god’s power set, is pushing outside the bounds of the border.  Sakhmet’s flaming lion isn’t going to be stopped by normal restraints.  It all comes together to provide a succinct visual summary of what’s going down: the Pantheon’s tumbling into excess, and the veneer of control they’ve been maintaining for six months is slipping.

Laura is under a lot of stress in this issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Narratively, issue #29 closely follows Laura as she absorbs the information about what her girlfriend has done .  We go with her from the police station where she explains that she hasn’t seen Sakhmet since she left the party to Valhalla where she assures Baal and the others that she doesn’t know where Sakhmet is to the Underground where the Morrigan refuses to speak to anyone until Laura leaves to another self-destructive bender to her own apartment in the Underground where she finds Sakhmet hanging out like nothing major’s happened.  It’s been such a long time since Laura was the perspective character for an entire issue that it feels a little jarring to be back in her head for such an extended period of time.  The narrative callback works well though in this case because we get intermixed with the present action a couple of flashbacks to significant moments Laura had with Sakhmet since the beginning of the Recurrence.

Sakhmet has always unambiguously been about escapism; she doesn’t think it can ever get better. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

These flashbacks are interesting because they highlight two specific moments in Laura and Sakhmet’s history.  The first one is when Laura was at the debut of both Baal and Sakhmet at the start of the Recurrence.  Baal, in his typical quippy way, remarks that he “took [the audience’s] virginity… Sakhmet’s taking everything else.”  It’s a flip way to play with the sexual element of experiencing certain gods’ miracles, but it also emphasizes what the two most senior members of the Pantheon are to Laura; she fooled around with Baphomet in secret, but Baal and Sakhmet are her public lovers.  Since her own debut, she’s vacillated between the orderly Baal and the purely hedonistic Sakhmet, and most of the time (that we’ve seen) Sakhmet has been the winner.  Sakhmet is a character totally immersed in her baser impulses as a way of coping with the genuinely terrible life she had before her ascension, and she serves as the primary model for Laura’s own coping in the aftermath of her family’s murder.  Sakhmet’s snapping and massacring a room full of fans (for reasons of which no one is yet aware; Amaterasu doesn’t count because we know that when she panics she becomes even more obtuse than normal) is the extreme that Laura likely recognizes as a potential endpoint for herself.  She’s all about self destruction, but dragging others into the mess gives Laura pause in a way that it never has for Sakhmet.

Weird how some things don’t become real until you say them out loud. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

As an aside, this issue contains a truly delightful page turn where we cut from Laura, in the middle of telling the Norns and Dionysus that she’s going home to get some rest, to her partying with abandon.  Self destruction is hard for her to avoid, and the complete lack of context for this shift from her trying to be responsible to her blowing all that up so she avoid being by herself (why else would she not go home?) is so excellent.  It’s my favorite storytelling beat in the issue, and this is a story that features both Cassandra and Dionysus being themselves to the utmost in ways that I adore.

Laura is not processing the day’s events well. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What we’re left with at the issue’s conclusion is a fair number of questions to establish tension for this new arc.  It’s clear by her reaction to finding Sakhmet in her apartment at the end that Laura has been honest with everyone all day about not knowing where her girlfriend’s gone, which means that when they reunite we get to wonder about what sort of decision Laura is going to make.  Everyone else in the Pantheon is pretty well set on finding and containing Sakhmet, and Laura’s status as the group wildcard leaves her as a big question mark going forward.  She might choose to help Sakhmet (it wouldn’t be the stupidest decision she’s ever made) or she might fall in line for once.  The implications for where Laura’s going on her character trajectory are pretty varied depending on this decision.  Aside from Laura, we also have questions about what Cassandra, Woden, and Dionysus have been up to.  They make mention of an upcoming show in this issue which Cassandra says will power up Ananke’s machine, but the specifics are unknown.  We can bet though that this show’s going to be important in some way, if for no other reason than because it will provide a nice set piece where more dramatic stuff can happen.

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.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #28”

This issue wraps up the Imperial Phase Part 1 story arc (which, as you might guess from its title, is just one half of a larger year long arc), and given the nature of the Imperial model of Recurrences that David Blake lays out at the end of issue #27, things have to start falling apart really fast now.  A lot of plot threads that were set up for this arc remain dangling, like the problem of the Great Darkness (the date that Baal set on his calendar for when that was supposed to come to a head, May 1, is still a full two months away from where the story leaves off here) and the question of what the stupid murder machine does (you’d think all the blades and saws would make the thing’s purpose more apparent, but it’s made out of god magic, so who knows?).  A lot of character subplots develop significantly in this issue without any major resolution, and some new mysteries get introduced.  It all feels very much like a major turn in the longer story just because there are so many inflection points centered on what happens here.

Let’s get to them.

This is probably the most somber I’ve ever seen Amaterasu. She almost looks like she know what she’s doing. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Featured on this cover is Amaterasu in her full regalia looking suitably sun god-ey.  Perhaps surprisingly though, she’s not really doing the happy radiant pose you would expect of someone who could most aptly be described in this arc as being on a white savior manic power trip.  Amaterasu’s been making a lot of poor choices for a while now (beginning most firmly with issue #15 where she, y’know, performed a solar flare over Hiroshima while she was in the middle of a fight with Cassandra), and her descent during this arc has been a little more pronounced than some of the other gods both because she’s not had quite as much panel time as, say, Laura and Cassandra and because she’s starting up her own actual cult so she can spend her remaining months blissed out and providing inspiration to her fans instead of facing any other real problems that are confronting the Pantheon.  This is the issue where my opinion of Amaterasu turns from mildly annoyed at her obtuseness to actively angered by her self absorption.  Minerva’s take on Amaterasu as a selfish coward who can’t be counted on to do anything but look out for herself feels like it bears out following this issue.  ShinTwo(tm) is a crude capitalist spin on an ancient religious tradition that Amaterasu has a passing familiarity with, and she’s completely unmoved by Cassandra’s totally valid critique of what she’s doing (as with all things Cassandra, the criticism isn’t delivered in the most tactful way, but tact requires a level of subtlety that I honestly don’t think Amaterasu grasps).  The more I think about how Amaterasu’s arc plays out up to this point, the more I dislike her; she’s written as an exploration of how white privilege manifests a sense of entitlement so deep that people who benefit from it often are unable to grasp the concept of “This Is Not For You.”

There are other panels where Amaterasu’s manifesting her god powers in this issue, but they aren’t nearly as scary as this “I’m only pretending to smile at you” look. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Cass’s second greatest flaw is that she takes all criticism as a mild annoyance. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In a somewhat related vein to all that is the subplot of Cassandra rooting around into Woden’s past.  Back in issue #23, Woden mentions in his interview that he’s college age, that his mother isn’t involved in his life, that his father’s only positive quality is actually being a presence while he was growing up, and that he hasn’t contacted either of them since his ascension.  In issue #25, he hints to Cassandra that he’s not white when she calls him out on his Asian girl fetish, and then in this issue we begin with the revelation that David Blake has a biracial son whose Asian mother left them some time ago.  These clues and the laws of conservation of plot simply beg the reader to come to the conclusion that Cassandra does only a few pages later, which is that Woden is Blake’s son Jon.  This is all a fine mystery for the reader to put together, but Cassandra, as someone who exists within the WicDiv universe, crosses an invasive line with someone whom she knows personally.  Like the moment at the Pantheon’s last meeting where Sakhmet snapped at Cassandra for being condescending, Woden’s retort that he’s never sunk to prying into Cassandra’s private life hits pretty true (I hate it when Woden’s right about something).  Cassandra’s chief flaw, which has been elevated and exacerbated by her ascension, is her tendency to flatten everything into a problem to be solved without considering the human cost of her actions.  Woden’s dig about Cassandra’s pre-transition life is cheap and wrong on its own, but his point that Cassandra fails to respect the boundaries of everyone else when she’s working a problem is valid.

The last major character development in this issue (which is sort of a misnomer because everyone who appears here has a pretty big moment of character development) goes to Laura, who after a couple months of purely self destructive behavior finally finds herself directly confronted with the consequences of some of her actions, and it’s enough to jar her out of the numb pleasure seeking she’s been pursuing nonstop since New Year’s.  On Dionysus’s invitation, Baphomet shows up for Amaterasu’s party at the ShinTwo(tm) shrine (the friendship between Baphomet and Dionysus really doesn’t get enough space in the book), but as soon as he sees that Laura is also there he bolts.  Laura, frustrated that Baphomet has been avoiding her since their last tryst at Christmas, catches him outside to demand an explanation for his ghosting her.  In the struggle to get away from Laura, Baphomet’s shades get knocked off his face to reveal bruises and scratches that the Morrigan has inflicted on him.  That whole mess deserves some dissection by itself, but the focus in this issue is Laura’s realization that she’s not just been screwing up her own life while she deals with her grief.  We’ve seen a few inklings of Laura’s misgivings about her behavior as she’s tried to make tentative emotional connections with Sakhmet (which Sakhmet always effortlessly bats away).  It’s easy to see why Laura would seek out a bond with Sakhmet; trauma’s not exactly uncommon among the members of the Pantheon, but Sakhmet’s approach of aggressive hedonism in order to numb pain is likely appealing to Laura, who’s shown signs of anhedonia since before her ascension.  The big downside to Sakhmet’s coping mechanism is that it requires total indifference to everyone else, and for all Laura has tried that strategy, it just doesn’t seem to be in her.  Seeing that her casual sleeping around has helped intensify the problems between Baphomet and the Morrigan serves as enough of a shock that she bails on the party, leaving Sakhmet and Amaterasu alone with a bunch of fans, which leads directly into the issue’s major hook for the second half of the Imperial Phase macro arc.

Aw, Laura. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

As if all of that stuff weren’t enough, the issue ends with a stinger that flashes back to the moments just before Laura began her assault on Valhalla in Ananke’s quarters.  We see Ananke, in tears, writing a farewell letter to an unnamed addressee where she lays out her fears about being unable to manage the current Pantheon and the continuing threat of the Great Darkness.  It’s obvious that Ananke expected to be killed, and we’re now left with the mystery of who her co-conspirator might be.  Woden is immediately out, since he almost interrupts her reflection with the news that Persephone is coming.  The only hint we get is in the final panel where the letter, left rolled on Ananke’s desk, disappears in a flash of purple starlight.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #27”

Folks who’ve been keeping up with my read-through of The Wicked + The Divine (I know you’re out there; say hi!) will remember that I kind of gushed a lot about issue #8, the one where we meet Dionysus and see Gillen and McKelvie do some really fun structural stuff to replicate the feeling of a rave on the page of a comic book.  Reading issue #27 feels extremely similar, although the intended effect is radically different.  We’re not being immersed in a seventy-two hour party where our perspective character has a bunch of interactions with the rest of the cast that require more context in order to make total sense; we’re jumping through two months of the Pantheon pursuing all their individual interests as the business of living through the second year of the Recurrence gets under way.

Don’t believe the smirk; Baphomet’s in a mess of trouble. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Gracing this issue’s cover is Baphomet, who looks like he’s having way more fun than he should be; the reality of what he’s going through with his relationship with the Morrigan unfortunately belies that image.  Our resident bad boy continues to be out of focus in this issue, but we get a few moments of his life in the Underground that help throw the situation into some relief.  Baphomet, whom we’ve seen has the ability to manifest ghost images and illusions, gave Laura a Christmas gift of seeing her deceased family, which was a very sweet thing to do.  What was not so sweet was when, on Laura’s initiative, they had sex again (the last time was back during the month Laura was in hiding following Ananke’s attempt to murder her).  On the other side of the Baphomet love triangle is the Morrigan, who has been keeping him on a particularly tight leash in the aftermath of the assault on Valhalla.  It’s always important to emphasize that Baphomet has made a lot of bad decisions, and he bears most of the responsibility for the position in which he now finds himself (it takes two to do the horizontal tango), but he seems legitimately caught between Laura, who’s using him for simple physical pleasure like with the rest of her lovers, and the Morrigan, who pulled him into the Pantheon life and with whom he has an especially unhealthy romantic history.  Baphomet’s life kind of sucks, never mind the fancy cover.

This is both terrifying and hilarious. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Like with other issues in this arc, the book is divided into two primary sections: the starting sequence where we’re reminded the Great Darkness is still a threat as it once again tries to kidnap Minerva and the longer montage of what the Pantheon is up to over the course of January and February 2015.  You could make a case that the section where Cassandra invites David Blake, the professor on Pantheon Studies whom Laura argued with at the 2013 Ragnarock, to look at the murder machine and get Pantheon academia to help her figure out what it does is a third section, but I feel like it works best as a summation of the trajectories everyone is set upon following the issue’s montage.  The character beats in the Baal and Minerva sequence are straightforward; Minerva continues to struggle with the reality of being a thirteen-year-old who likely won’t live to see her fourteenth birthday while putting on a brave face, and Baal resolves to keep doing more of the same because he’s an incredibly steady person who isn’t sure how else to go about managing his responsibilities.  The relationship between these two doesn’t get a whole lot of attention outside of small moments, but it’s clear that Baal has a special affinity for Minerva as someone else who’s lost family because of the larger events surrounding the Pantheon.  That relationship gets hammered home in a completely unsubtle way at the issue’s end with a panel homaging Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns with Baal in the position of Batman and Minerva in the role of Robin.

Dionysus’s raves are pure delight. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The central feature of the issue is the montage (you can do anything with a montage).  This is a slightly chaotic sequence with about four different plot strands going at different rates across each double page spread.  Because their layout doesn’t always respect the vertical split between a pair of pages (sometimes you read panels in columns, sometimes you read them straight across the pages) Matt Wilson has color coded distinct scenes in each layout: sky gods are usually outlined in orange, Laura’s ongoing mischief is mostly in red, gods behaving badly towards each other are dark blue, Cassandra’s research project is in green, and Dionysus teaching Cassandra how to let herself relax is light blue.  It’s easiest to read the panels as though they were individual comic strips on a page instead of trying to impose a traditional reading order.  We’re getting snapshots of events happening over a two month period; the precise sequence is less important than the milieu of activity and the general trends that Gillen wants us to see happening across the entire cast.  Everyone is growing a little more obsessive about their own pet pursuits, and it’s unclear what if any forward momentum exists towards the various goals the Pantheon outlined in the last issue.  Cassandra being affected by Dionysus’s rave miracle is an intensely happy character moment that gets immediately undercut by her frustration over not getting any closer to solving the mystery she really cares about; Baal’s crusade against the Great Darkness seems not to be going anywhere at all; only Laura, with her perpetual spiral of grief and depression, seems to be moving towards anything of consequence, even if that consequence is just further pain and heartache for everyone around her (it makes perfect sense that this issue sees Laura finally embracing the long time flirtation she’s had with Sakhmet as a partner who won’t demand any sort of emotional engagement from her).

Unfortunately though, even Dionysus can’t escape the creeping dread that no one’s going to get out of this in one piece. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

What we get instead of progress is a larger sense that without Ananke to guide everyone, the Pantheon’s cohesion (which was already relatively tenuous) is thoroughly compromised.  Everyone finds themselves in the midst of difficult existential problems, and they’re all taking whatever paths seem most in line with their own predilections.  When David Blake shows up at the issue’s end and explains the imperial model of Recurrences (essentially, gods tend to lose their grip on reality in the second year of any given Recurrence following the height of their power and influence), he’s acting as an author surrogate to let us know, things are going to fall apart now.  We already knew, on a metatextual level, that things had to fall apart because we’ve passed the series climax and a Western plot structure demands that it’s now time to play out all the consequences of that inflection point.  Tension is going to have to be released, and it’s going to be explosive.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #26”

Aside from the magazine issue (which, for all its structural novelty and status quo updating, does relatively little to add much dimension to the characters it spotlights in comparison to, say, the Commercial Suicide arc), The Wicked + The Divine has been on a relatively long high action streak from the sustained climax of Rising Action through the first couple issues of Imperial Phase where the emphasis has been on Laura’s erratic doing-without-thinking as part of her ongoing depression coupled with lots of newly established story hooks (The Great Darkness is A Thing! Cassandra has figured out a part of the murder machine goes ‘Beep!’ Woden might not be white!).  With issue #26, we finally have a breather (after the obligatory fight with more Great Darkness creatures, which is actually a much more interesting on a character level than a lot of the previous action has been) and the whole surviving Pantheon gets together to take stock of what’s going on.  It’s really good to see some of the characters who’ve been obscured since Ananke’s death back on panel; everyone gets a really juicy character moment in this issue, and it’s so satisfying in a way that explosions and backflips just aren’t.  I’ve been craving more of Baphomet and the Morrigan’s relationship drama, and it’s never bad to see Dionysus doing his level best to be the good guy that he thinks everyone needs him to be.  Even the characters that I usually don’t get that excited for have really delightful moments (Sakhmet telling Cassandra off for being condescending is way more satisfying than I expected, and I say this as a major Cassandra fan).

The Norns look pretty awesome on this cover; I’m especially taken with the World Tree in the inset covered with something like the threads of fate. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Lending to all this overflow of wonderful character work is the issue’s structure; two third of it focus on a meeting of the Pantheon where they discuss their options for moving forward after the revelation that the Great Darkness is one thing that Ananke was apparently telling the truth about, and to help give space to the sheer volume of characters who need to speak in this scene, most of it’s built around a nine panel grid for multiple pages.  Maybe it’s weird to have opinions about panel composition (no, it’s not), but I especially like the work that McKelvie does with facial expressions, and the nine panel structure gives him a really good space to show off how the characters are reacting to what each other is saying with maximal content.  The scene moves at a relatively quick pace, but having just a single focal point in each panel helps the reader slow down and take in character actions as well as words.  That the climax of the scene is when Laura, still committing hard to her Destroyer label, casts the tie breaking vote for anarchy in a splash that totally disrupts the panel grid, is just icing on the cake.  I love this kind of stuff where the issue structure so directly supports thematic elements of the story and characters.

DJ Khaled! …I’ll see myself out. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Going back to the opening fight, we get a lot of stuff about Baal and Amaterasu in particular that’s interesting.  Some of it’s new information, like the fact that Baal feels obligated to fight the Great Darkness because it killed his father (there are certainly more questions generated by this fact, like whether the Great Darkness is an intelligent thing that deliberately targets the families of the Pantheon–it seems like Baal’s the only one who’s been victimized by the monsters since literally everyone besides him and Amaterasu didn’t know about it before this issue), and some of it’s just riffs on established character traits (I honestly cannot get enough of Amaterasu being slow on the uptake of popular culture or her affectation for using extremely benign euphemisms in place of swearing); all of it’s interesting and entertaining.  Up to this point, Baal has been a character with some apparent depth that’s just not been explored very much outside of a couple spotlight issues (issue #12, which is ostensibly about Inanna, is way more Baal’s grief following his ex’s murder).  Like with Inanna, whose death serves as a central motivator for why Baal treats Laura the way that he does, we learn here that so much of his dedication to Ananke’s stated mission stems from another traumatic loss.  Baal is all swagger in his public persona, but his two central traits in the story (as the guy carrying a torch for Inanna and the team boy scout) are founded on these major deaths.  Like I noted earlier, I find it odd that Baal is the only one whose family has been attacked by the Great Darkness.  The handwavy explanation from Amaterasu that “It’s a sky god thing” seems too much like a just-so story; it’s awfully convenient that this newly revealed threat is something that only two members of the Pantheon have had to deal with in the year since the Recurrence began.  You’d think Ananke, with her apparent discretion to choose who ascends to godhood, would have tried to build a Pantheon with more sky gods if this were a really serious problem.  I think what I’m trying to get at is that as lovable as Baal is, I can’t shake Woden’s assessment of him from issue #14: “I AM VERY EASILY MANIPULATED!”

Yes, this is my reaction too when my friends are attacked by relentless creatures of darkness and despair. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

As for Amaterasu, I just find her entertaining when she’s in cutesy mode (as opposed to her scary, oblivious white girl aspect, which leads to such wonderful things as manifesting a sunburst over Hiroshima and appropriating the heck out of Shinto without considering that she just might not be the best representative for a religion with a long tradition entirely centered in Japan).  Her delighted exclamation that she just figured out it’s the humans who are the Walking Dead (at a time when The Walking Dead was around its peak popularity and everyone else had long figured out the show’s premise is about people being horrible to each other in the middle of an ongoing apocalypse) makes me chuckle every time I read it.  I get this is probably mean spirited; my educator instincts urge me not to shame people for being slower on the uptake than others around them, but Amaterasu’s entire demeanor is a special combination of privileged and oblivious that just makes her so easy to deride.  The tricky thing is parsing out the parts of Amaterasu’s personality that are an innocuous preference for affected girlishness (who says, “Gosh,” in response to news that supernatural monsters are attacking their friends?) from her very harmful repose in whiteness.  In a cast full of characters who all have some horrible aspects to them, she’s probably one of the most difficult to pick apart without being unfair (this seems like it’s always the case with characters who are both privileged and just not smart; attacking intelligence or a lack thereof always drifts quickly into ableist territory, and that’s really not something I’m interested in doing).

Other small moments that are worth noting, even if I’m not going to discuss them too much at this particular moment include: Dionysus comes out as asexual to Cassandra after backing her up rather inexplicably at the Pantheon meeting; Cassandra briefly discusses her own sexuality and we learn that she’s in a dominant/submissive triad with the other two Norns (perhaps not all that surprising, Cassandra is the sub; given how hard she goes trying to manage everyone around her, it makes sense that she’d seek a relationship where she doesn’t have to be the responsible one); and the dynamic between Baphomet and the Morrigan has shifted where she appears to be calling all the shots between them.

The Morrigan is perpetually pissed at Baphomet here, and she’s not even manifesting Badb. That’s how you know it’s bad. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)