Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #10”

Because this issue features Baphomet on the cover, blood running salaciously down his face, you might expect things to take a very dark turn here.  It has been five issues since the last major character death, and a very significant plot point of issue #9 was that Baphomet was informed by Ananke that he could extend his lifespan by murdering another god.  Also, Baphomet set his sights on the newly ascended Cassandra, so that doesn’t bode ill or anything.  Fortunately for everyone involved, this is not an issue where someone dies gratuitously.  Instead, it marks Cassandra’s triad debuting as the Norns and Laura hitting on some serious introspection about what she wants out of her life.  Also, Baphomet tries to kill Cassandra, but really that’s a relatively minor part of the issue.

The most unsettling thing about this cover isn’t the blood; it’s Baphomet’s eyes. All the gods have some feature that marks them as otherworldly on these covers, and since Baphomet is inclined to always wear aviator shades, seeing his eyes is especially off-putting. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

However, since Baphomet does grace the cover, we should talk about what’s going on with him a little bit.  Obviously, attempted murder is pretty bad, and the fallout from his actions here will carry on through the next couple of story arcs.  The frame of mind that he’s in at this point seems to be profound regret.  His conversation with the Morrigan (we learn here that her real name is Marian) at the issue’s start implies that she was responsible for bringing him to Ananke’s attention.  That’s an odd detail, given that the process by which gods are identified has been pretty much totally unspecified up to this point.  In the last issue Ananke mentioned that she usually has trouble finding the twelfth god, but there’s nothing much to go on beyond that.  That Baphomet and the Morrigan knew each other before their ascensions (as well as Lucifer and Amaterasu, although that’s not a relationship that’s been dwelt on very much) opens up questions about the nature of the gods’ incarnations.  Obviously they seem to incarnate in close geographic proximity (no one is weirded out that all of the Pantheon are apparently kids from around London), but the possibility of previous connections actually influencing how Ananke finds the gods is a new one.  It leaves you to wonder if Baphomet would have ascended if he hadn’t known the Morrigan of if it was all fated.  Combined with Laura’s whole one time miraculous cigarette thing, there’s space to speculate if there’s potential for lots of mortals to ascend to godhood during a Recurrence, and if Ananke has the power to pick and choose how she wants each Pantheon to be constructed.

Anyway, that was a tangent.

I really relate to Baphomet’s self-doubt, but his emotional maturity is seriously lacking. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Regardless of larger questions about the nature of the Recurrence, it’s clear that Baphomet at least holds the Morrigan responsible for his current situation, and there are some strong feelings of resentment.  Based on what else we’ve seen about Baphomet and the Morrigan’s relationship, we can get a pretty clear picture that there are some unhealthy features.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Baphomet doesn’t share his thoughts with the Morrigan so that she isn’t a party to his whole “murder Cassandra” plot.  It doesn’t stop her from intervening at Ragnarock to save Cassandra and help Baphomet escape from Ananke, but I can’t help feeling like if the two of them were just able to have a more honest conversation about how they’re coping (or not) with their situation, things might have turned out very different for the two of them.  As it stands, Baphomet tries to shoulder the burden by himself, and the consequences are him and the Morrigan being on the outs with the rest of the Pantheon.  I sympathize with what he’s feeling, but he really makes things a lot worse here (and also, he doesn’t learn his lesson about attempted murder, since the issue closes with him plotting to attack Inanna next).

Laura gets out of her head for a minute, and what we see is that she’s quite a lovely person. Also, this is a heck of a pep talk to have to give a nihilist who believes she’s going to die within two years without being properly understood by anyone. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

More central to this issue is Laura.  The last issue ended with her just beginning to cope with the fallout of Cassandra’s ascension (I don’t think she’s even gotten the news yet at that point; she just feels that something big has happened that affects her).  It’s a pretty rough spot to be in (isn’t it always when you’re still reeling from something that disturbs your hopes for the future?)  The time skip between these issues helps a little bit (Laura has pretty much the entirety of July 2014 to process what’s happened; it’s probably good that Gillen elides that period) so that Laura’s meeting with Cassandra after her performance isn’t just a mass of Laura dumping her bad feels out at Cassandra’s feet.  Instead, Laura offers the kind of comfort that only a true fan can: she encourages Cassandra to use her gift to tell everyone what she needs to say.  This moment is probably the most genuine expression of why Laura wants to be a god; yes, she wants the fame and adoration, but more she wants people to listen to her.  That she comes to the conclusion here that she probably doesn’t have anything meaningful to say is a pretty significant insight.  Regardless of what else is going on with the gods, Laura’s encounters with all of them highlight that they all have a message they want to impart.  Those messages involve varying levels of self absorption, but they all carry a core of trying to convey a sense of meaning to people (even Cassandra’s aggressive nihilism has a defiant note of human solidarity to it).  Laura, in contrast, is portrayed as someone desperately searching for any kind of meaning; it’s no wonder she’s a superfan of the whole Pantheon.  Laura’s offering Cassandra a bit of comfort after her show doesn’t elicit the response she was hoping for (I’m not sure what Cassandra wanted; maybe uncontrolled sobbing at the futility of existence?) is an unusually positive note to leave her story on with this issue.  You know that it means something really bad has to happen soon.

Other developments in this issue include Laura having a conversation with David Blake, a Pantheon scholar with whom she butted heads at Ragnarock the previous year; the revelation that the guys who tried to assassinate Lucifer way back in the first issue were a couple of folks in Fandom who seemed to just be making a play at the Prometheus gambit with an unusually elaborate cover story; and Laura finally telling someone about her episode with the cigarette (in front of Ananke).  The first part of the murder mystery from the first arc closes without much fanfare (still no hint of who killed the judge), but other threads get planted that will become important in both the near and far future.

I’m absolutely crying. Also, Ananke totally ruins the moment by standing in the background like that. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #9”

I like to think of this issue as the one where Gillen and McKelvie realized they should probably hold up and give a little bit of background about what’s happening in their book.  We’ve been barreling along on the momentum of the murder mystery for a while now, and with the introduction of one of the last two remaining gods in the previous issue, I’m guessing that they felt they could slow down just a little bit to do an exposition heavy issue.

Unlike that major troll they did with the Tara cover, this issue really is all about Ananke. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, cover design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The only problem with all of that is that Ananke is the one giving all the information, and she’s super sketchy.  It’s kind of hard to trust someone who straight up executed Lucifer in the street without much in the way of warning.  Yes, Lucifer had been wreaking havoc in public, but she had calmed down by the time Ananke arrived on the scene.  The whole episode feels like an extrajudicial killing, and those are bad.  Throw on top of that Ananke’s generally secretive behavior, and I think you have a decent case for being suspicious of her.  When you consider that this issue involves Ananke telling Baphomet that he can totally live longer if he kills another god it feels pretty well clinched that she is not trustworthy (her rationale that Baphomet has a better developed moral compass than Minerva is total crap; everyone in the Pantheon besides Minerva is in their late teens or early twenties, and folks who are that young are still capable of making some incredibly bad decisions when presented with significant temptation).

If you set aside the bookends of Laura heading home after hanging out at Inanna’s residency, the issue breaks down pretty neatly into three sections: Ananke comforting Minerva, Ananke tempting Baphomet, and Ananke interviewing and elevating Cassandra.  Each sequence gives a different perspective on how Ananke manages the Pantheon (it’s quite helpful to think of her as a manager trying to keep hold of the reins on her talent).

“It will be okay” or some variation on that is sort of a leitmotif in The Wicked + The Divine. If someone says something like that to someone, you can be guaranteed that things are going to go bad. See Laura’s conversation with Lucifer just before Lucifer decides to break out of jail. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In the case of Minerva, Ananke is doing a lot of work to soothe the very understandable anxiety that Minerva is feeling as a young teenager with the equivalent of a terminal disease.  I have regular anxious fits about mortality, and I’m an adult who still has multiple decades of life ahead of me barring the unexpected.  Minerva has to be pretty freaked out by all this, especially since part of her deal as a god is that she’s incredibly precocious; she understands the implications of her situation perfectly well.  This is a motif that’s been building steadily over the last few issues; Minerva’s been a relatively minor character up to this point, but Gillen and McKelvie have been pointed in the last few issues about highlighting the angst that Minerva’s dealing with at least in passing.  Unlike the rest of the Pantheon, Minerva is still a minor which means that she’s under the guardianship of her parents who from the outside at least appear to be focused on cashing in while their daughter is still around.  She can’t retreat into all the comforts of debauchery that fame brings for her elder peers.  The exchange here between Minerva and Ananke suggests that Ananke fulfills a significant role in Minerva’s life; she ostensibly is an adult who only wants to make the child feel safe.  In a lot of ways, this relationship feels like the least manipulative one that Ananke has.

This is the panel I always go back to when I think about Baphomet. He just looks like a scared kid. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Coming quickly on the heels of Minerva is Baphomet.  Now, Baphomet is a really flawed guy; if nothing else he’s incredibly reckless (remember that he accidentally killed a police officer during his first appearance).  At the same time, I really sympathize with him.  For all the bluster and snark he displays to others, this issue highlights the fact that he is really just as scared and insecure about everything as Minerva.  Ananke perceptively notes that Baphomet has come “to have [his] head stroked too.”  We don’t yet know Baphomet’s story (okay, we don’t know most of the cast’s stories yet), but he seems to have serious misgivings about the whole godhood thing in ways that are much more intense than the public facing gods (Amaterasu really buys into the gods’ mission of inspiring humanity, and Baal is all in on his own personal greatness).  One thing we’ve seen in the few flashbacks to various gods’ ascensions (and in the case of Cassandra at the end of this issue) is that when Ananke decides that she’s found a god, the person in question doesn’t really have a choice about whether they want to accept the deal.  Given Baphomet’s generally terrible record as a god so far, it’s easy to figure that he’s having some serious regrets about what’s happened to him.  Of course, when Ananke dangles the possibility that he could extend his brief life by offing another god, it’s pretty hard to believe that she isn’t setting him up to make another bad decision.  The big question we’re left with is why.

This is probably the most honest thing Ananke says in this whole issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The centerpiece of the issue is Ananke’s interview with Cassandra.  After Baphomet has a poor impulse control moment and we’re left with the distinct impression that Ananke couldn’t possibly have thought Baphomet wouldn’t try to kill someone out of desperation, she sits down with Cassandra and her film crew to give us all the background we’ve been craving.  It’s about as vague as you might expect, but it’s more than we’ve had.  Essentially, Ananke explains that the gods are the reason human civilization exists because they provide the inspiration to elevate humanity out of darkness and ignorance.  How much of this is metaphorical is debatable, but Ananke presents a history that involves multiple iterations of the Recurrence that failed to light the spark of civilization before the gods finally put one in the win column.  In a plot twist, the gods didn’t plan for their rapid exit, and humanity fell back into the dark ages so they had to do the whole thing over again.  The second time the gods beat back the darkness, one of them volunteered to give up her ability to inspire and live as an immortal who would guide each new Pantheon when they appeared.  That god, as you might imagine, is supposed to be Ananke.  What we’re supposed to take away from this story is that it really sucks to be involved with the gods at all.  Humanity writ large is supposed to be the chief beneficiary of the gods, and in exchange for this immense burden, the gods get to have a couple years every century where they can indulge in whatever pursuits happen to appeal to them.  It’s not the best deal for the gods (or for humanity, considering just how destructive the gods can be).  The best conclusion we’re supposed to draw from this is that Ananke, for all her shadowy manipulation, is essential to keeping things from going off the rails.

Cassandra’s easily one of my favorite characters in WicDiv, but she’s such a downer sometimes. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because Gillen and McKelvie love to make Cassandra act as the surrogate for readers who don’t take anything they write at face value, she isn’t convinced by Ananke’s story.  Where Minerva is looking for comfort and Baphomet just needs someone to rage against, Cassandra isn’t quite as easy to manipulate.  Fortunately for Ananke and the conventions of narrative efficiency, Cassandra turns out to be the twelfth god of the Pantheon, Urðr.  It’s kind of hard to continue being the obnoxious skeptic when you get zapped with the god juice, after all.  Of course, despite Cassandra’s ascension, she uses her newfound abilities (Urðr has divination abilities since she’s a fate goddess) to determine that it’s all a crock anyway.  That’s right; Cassandra, even as one of the gods, still can’t buy that there’s anything divine about their nature (at least she’s manifested the aspect of a Fate; those are figures who typically exist outside and above the gods in mythologies where they appear, so it at least makes sense she’d still be nonplussed by the Pantheon).

The issue ends with us returning to Laura, who is having a moment of extreme despair since she can just feel that something terrible (from her perspective) has happened, but she doesn’t know what yet.  This Pantheon is complete, and now it’s time to see what they’re going to do.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #8”

While there are certainly issues of The Wicked + The Divine that feel a little light on plot, issue eight isn’t one of them. Following on the dramatic introduction of a new god in the Pantheon via a flyer that Laura really didn’t want to accept, this issue flashes forward a month to a secret rave that Dionysus is putting on and has invited the entire Pantheon to attend. Laura and Cassandra, through their various connections, have also gotten invited to the party, and what follows is an issue of only slightly adulterated joy and sparkles (okay, there are no sparkles, but Matt Wilson’s colors go to especially delightful places inside Dionysus’s hivemind). There are a few twists and turns in the mystery that Laura uncovers while she’s busily partying away with all of her best short-lived friends. It is, overall, a very solid issue on the normal merits, and we haven’t even gotten into the visual design yet.

Dionysus is like Inanna, except he doesn’t give off this vibe of wanting everyone to be looking at him all the time. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, cover design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. I adore this issue, so it deserves to get its due.

Laura’s introduction to Dionysus begins at the door where the bouncer begins to question who she is before his eyes turn black and he jovially greets Laura with a neon black speech bubble and tells her that he’s downstairs. Right away it’s clear that Dionysus can do some pretty weird stuff (being able to blow up people’s heads is serious business and all, but literally possessing people is downright scary), but his demeanor never once makes you think that he might do something untoward with any of his party-goers. It’s a very different vibe from other members of the Pantheon; Dionysus just doesn’t come across as wrapped up in himself. Inanna is a lovely guy, but it’s undeniable that he knows that he draws attention to himself, and while I think Baphomet and the Morrigan are delightful goth kids whose act is way overwrought, you just can’t miss the fact that they want everything to be about them. I think the strongest indication of this unassuming quality is that Dionysus is upfront with Laura about his origin as a fan of the Morrigan who was approached by Ananke after the Underground incident (I’ve looked, and I’m pretty sure that you can’t spot him anywhere in issue three) and also the fact that unlike every other god, he really is not into the high fashion thing. That’s not to say that he doesn’t signify his status as part of raver subculture (he and Laura have an extended conversation about his smiley face button); he just doesn’t present with the same level of flair that you see from any of the more public facing gods.

Dionysus hits just the right notes of dressing like he really doesn’t care how he looks while projecting his raver identity. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Fraction, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Once Laura and Dionysus get introductions out of the way, he invites her to join his hivemind so she can enjoy the rave.

This is the issue where I really wish I had a better camera and better lighting for photographing panels because I just can’t convey here what a feast Wilson’s colors are. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is where the issue gets really trippy in a good way. After touching Dionysus, Laura slowly gets pulled into this altered state where everything is neon-colored and there’s a pervasive, pulsing four beat. One of the central experiences of a rave as I understand it (I was never cool enough to actually go to a party like this) is the immersion in the music; it’s supposed to be loud and constant so that you can lose yourself in a sensory overload. The perennial problem of comics is that because it’s a purely visual medium, writers and artists have to get creative in figuring out how to convey an auditory experience. The Wicked + The Divine often sidesteps the sound problem by not even attempting to convey sound through traditional effects (besides the ubiquitous ‘Kllk’); instead the gods’ performances are usually depicted in lush splash pages that focus on Laura’s emotional reaction to the music. Because Dionysus isn’t the same sort of performer as the other gods, the splash page isn’t an effective strategy (given the entire issue is set at a rave, it would be endless splash pages, which aren’t really conducive to conveying tons of plot). Still, the party has to be a constant presence while Laura is doing investigative things, so we get this unique format of the eight panel layout where every other panel is a beat of the music. On top of the layout stuff, you also have the intense colors that help indicate Laura’s altered state while she’s joined to the hivemind.

Cassandra wins best joke of the issue. Of course there’s no music; it’s a comic book. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The developments of the issue are relatively major. Laura learns that the Morrigan lied about Baphomet’s alibi for the judge’s murder (from Baphomet himself no less), sees that things are still not copacetic between Baal and Inanna (this is one of Inanna’s less flattering moments because it becomes clear that while he’s not interested in being exclusive with anyone, Baal is absolutely a monogamy guy regardless of his current partner; the moral of the story is that relationships are best served by honest, open communication instead of just assuming that your partner is cool with you spreading the free love), and gets warned to watch her back by the Morrigan (who is partying as Gentle Annie but takes a beat to throw a threatening look as Badb). There are also a few small character moments, like Laura dancing with Sakhmet (it’s becoming increasingly clear that Laura is attracted to pretty much the entire Pantheon minus Woden) and having a quiet conversation with Amaterasu where the sun goddess explains unprompted that she prefers men (it seems to be an unspoken tenet of this book that you will know the sexual proclivities of every character). Meanwhile, Cassandra has a conversation with Woden that she’s really not into until he whispers something to her that suddenly has her pumping her fist despite not hearing any music.

The bloodshot eyes are a big reveal because the entire issue Dionysus has been manifesting his powers. He looks exhausted. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

When things finally become too overwhelming for Laura, she tells Dionysus to let her go (he’s very obliging like that; you only stay in the rave as long as you want to). Laura concludes her weekend (she partied for two days straight and didn’t realize it) with a short meditation on the contrast between Woden and Dionysus. The two do sort of similar miracles, but where Woden does nothing but complain that he can only make devices to help others do miraculous things, Dionysus is fully invested in the idea of godhood as a selfless, other-oriented existence. Laura’s very taken with this idea, but of course this is The Wicked + The Divine, so of course there’s a price to be paid for making so many people happy. Dionysus has been maintaining hivemind raves since his ascension; he’s been sharing his head space with others for two months. That’s not even the biggest trade off either; Dionysus has stopped sleeping. At the end of this issue it’s unclear whether the insomnia is a side effect of Dionysus’s divinity or if he’s just deliberately making himself stay awake because he knows the clock is ticking. It’s a downer moment that caps off an otherwise exuberant issue.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #7”

This is the issue where you discover that all the hearsay about Woden being a jerk is absolutely true and his redeemable qualities exist in a quantum space that will always, always, disappear the moment you look for them.  Also, Baphomet and the Morrigan show up at the end, and I maintain that they are still the most delightful of the gods that we’ve met so far (given a choice between the underworld and the sky gods, I totally go with the underworld here; their incredibly performative artifice always strikes me as more genuine than even Inanna pulls off–and I think Inanna is great).

Woden is the worst. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, cover design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The setup for this issue goes like this: another month or so after the last issue, Laura has leveraged her proximity to Lucifer’s decapitation to become a minor celebrity in Pantheon fandom, and she’s now booked as a VIP guest at Fantheon, a major convention for the faithful.  This pursuit of power and prestige among fandom isn’t just for self-glorification (though I doubt Laura doesn’t enjoy her brush with celebrity, at least until she gets sick of being hounded for autographs); becoming a second-tier figure in fandom grants Laura access to the Pantheon that she didn’t have after Ananke killed Lucifer.  The other bit of salient information in this issue is the rumor of the Prometheus Gambit, a potential motive for the men who attempted to assassinate Lucifer back in the first issue.  The Prometheus Gambit is the theory that if a mortal is able to successfully kill a god, then that person will take possession of the god’s power.

Cassandra explains the Prometheus Gambit, and Jamie McKelvie demonstrates his ability to draw the very specific facial expression “disgusted incredulity.” (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Following all of this setup, we get to the main event of the issue: Laura getting to observe Woden in action and deciding that she needs to find out what he knows.  The incident that precipitates Laura’s sudden interest in Woden occurs at a panel for people who touched the hems of the Pantheon’s garments, so to speak.  One of Woden’s Valkyries, a pop star collective made up of tall Asian women hand picked by Woden to make use of his creations, has been recently kicked out of the group, and she’s eager to spill tea about Woden now that she’s no longer legally obligated to represent him in a positive light to the public.  The woman, Kerry, runs through a laundry list of salacious details about Woden’s behavior in private which paint him as emotionally abusive, selfish, and strongly insinuate that he’s horribly disfigured beneath his mask.

Kerry’s gossipmongering doesn’t go on for too long before Woden shows up to the panel with an offer to let Kerry come back to the Valkyries if she’ll just publicly swear that she was lying about everything in order to get attention.  He even brings a brand new set of Valkyrie armor with him to present to her.  Kerry, whom Gillen and McKelvie portray as someone who simply craves the spotlight, has some misgivings about Woden’s promise, but agrees to disavow everything she’s said right there in the panel.

Yeah, this doesn’t end well. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Now, here’s the kicker about Woden: by the end of this issue, everything that Kerry says about him is proven true, and most of it is demonstrated in a thoroughly public manner.  As soon as Kerry declares that she made it all up in front of the audience at the panel, Woden destroys the armor and casts Kerry off, satisfied that her reputation is now thoroughly ruined.  It’s a an incredibly effective public humiliation, but Laura has enough sense to question Woden whether Kerry was actually lying about anything she said about him.  Woden obfuscates by saying that with less than two years to live he doesn’t have the luxury of caring about what’s true, but the manner in which he humiliates Kerry lends credence to her suggestion that he’s abusive and self involved.  The only thing that’s left a mystery is his disfigurement; he essentially admits to Laura that he really is disfigured, but this is done in private where no one except those closest to the Pantheon can overhear.

This dude is heartless. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

More surprising than Woden’s awfulness is the way that Gillen doubles down on it as a character trait.  All the gods have some hangups about their abbreviate lifespans, but Woden is portrayed as especially petty.  He resents the fact that his divine powers only allow him to create devices that other people can safely use (a backfire from something he made for himself early in his ascension is the reason he always wears a mask in public).  It explains why, in addition to unashamedly indulging a very specific fetish, Woden maintains his entourage of Valkyries; since he can’t personally benefit from his creations he’ll just manipulate and coerce others into serving him with the promise of access to his power.  At this point you might think that there has to be some core aspect of Woden’s character that is essentially tragic or misunderstood, but I just don’t buy it.  He is exactly as Gillen and McKelvie present him, and we’re not supposed to find him the least bit redeeming.  To put a bullet on that point, Laura’s interview with Woden ends with Kerry, angry over Woden’s betrayal and her public humiliation, attempting to kill him with an appeal to the Prometheus Gambit.  Minerva foils the assassination attempt, but is horrified when she realizes how seriously she injures Kerry.  Woden shrugs the incident off by assuring Laura that the Prometheus Gambit is just a myth; if it were true he would absolutely be trying to kill all the other gods so he could switch places with them.

It has to be really comforting for the rest of the Pantheon to know that one of their own would kill them in a heartbeat if he thought it would benefit him. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue closes out with Laura having a drunken karaoke night in the company of Baphomet and the Morrigan, which is the kind of stupid fun you expect young people to have, particularly when they’re working through some complicated feelings (Laura is always working through complicated feelings).  This pastime in and of itself is unremarkable beyond establishing a growing friendship between Laura and the underworld gods, but it does provide the payoff to a running gag throughout the issue where Laura becomes increasingly fed up with people pestering her and refusing anything they ask or offer.  Someone wants to give her a flyer announcing the public debut of the eleventh god of the Pantheon: Dionysus, the Dancefloor That Walks Like a Man.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #6”

The fifth issue of The Wicked + The Divine marked the end of the series’s first arc.  It ended without much of anything resolved; Laura still doesn’t know who killed the judge, and Lucifer, who was everyone else’s prime suspect in that murder, has been summarily executed by Ananke for being troublesome.  Everyone knows that the gods aren’t faking their miracles now, and Laura has inexplicably shown a bit of a divine spark herself in the form of lighting a cigarette with a finger click–once.  The resolution is mostly just an emotional one (Laura has been through a remarkable ordeal what with getting an up close view of her new friend’s head disintegration) as we’ve been given the dime tour of the world and (Gillen and McKelvie hope) a reason to want to know what happens next for our protagonist.

In a sea of glam headshots, Inanna’s is perhaps the glammest. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Fortunately, I super dig The Wicked + The Divine, so we’re going to keep going.

Issue six picks up a month and a half after Lucifer’s death with Laura trying to resume a normal life.  She’s failing miserably, as one might imagine a person does after having several near death experiences and seeing someone else’s violent death up close.  While going about her life, she constantly clicks her fingers, hoping that she’ll perform another miracle.  A chance encounter with some fellow Pantheon fans who are wearing cheeky postmortem Lucifer tribute merch leads to her vomiting in a dumpster (twice).  She feels unable to talk with her parents about the traumatic stuff she’s experienced.  Laura is not coping well, and it’s not only because of what happened with Lucifer.

Just imagine walking around all the time clicking your fingers and hoping that you accidentally light something on fire. That’s pretty much what half of Laura’s life has been like since the last issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Naturally, because this is a fantasy story, Laura doesn’t get to fade back into fandom obscurity as someone who just had a weird thing happen in her vicinity that one time; she ends up getting contacted by a member of the Pantheon whom we haven’t yet met in person (although we have heard a few bits of gossip about him).  The god in question is Inanna the Queen of Heaven, the kinder, gentler pansexual member of the Pantheon and Baal’s ex-boyfriend (if you haven’t grokked it by this point, The Wicked + The Divine is delightfully queer).  His visual design is highly reminiscent of Prince with a strong preference for shades of purple matched with gold accents; there’s a strong sense of spectacle associated with the character as McKelvie and Wilson showcase three different outfits for Inanna in this one issue (most of the Pantheon members we’ve met so far have stuck to more or less one central look with small variations throughout the first arc).  Inanna likes to be seen, even when he’s trying not to draw attention to himself (Laura mocks his choice of low-profile meetup attire as he’s hanging out in a graveyard in a purple trench coat with matching tiger print boots).

Tell me you don’t look at this face and instantly want to trust him. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Despite the ostentatious quality to Inanna’s mere presence on the page, he comes across here as an incredibly warm, caring person.  He’s mindful of personal boundaries (before comforting Laura with a hug he asks her explicit permission), he explains that he remembers Laura from before the Recurrence (they were both attendees at the previous year’s Pantheon fan convention Ragnarock, an affair that has mostly been the gathering place of stuffy academics but will most assuredly be a giant party now that the Recurrence is in progress), and he’s genuine in his praise of the positive qualities he sees in Laura.  Inanna’s talent is making the people he’s with feel like they’re the most important thing in the world to him, and while that level of charm should normally engender some feelings of caution, it’s hard to dislike him.  On the spectrum of artifice to authenticity that all the Pantheon members exist along, Inanna rings in strongly on the authentic side.  He’s so good at authenticity that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s also performing.

Laura does, but she’s also been through a really terrible month. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The actual plot points of the issue are relatively thin.  Inanna discloses to Laura that he’s divined how the men who attempted to murder Lucifer back in the first issue relate to the Pantheon: they weren’t religious extremists but fans.  Because it’s divination, the details beyond that are extremely fuzzy, and Inanna charges Laura with trying to find more information about them.  Laura agrees and reluctantly uses her newfound status in Pantheon fandom to start connecting with other fans in the hopes of figuring out what’s going on.  The rest of the issue is devoted to explaining a little bit of Inanna’s background (he saw Laura arguing with an old dude who hates Millennials at Ragnarock and was impressed with her fearlessness, and now that he’s a god with less than two years to live he never wants to be afraid again) and showing the personal fallout of Lucifer’s death for Laura.  It’s a remarkably thin chapter if you’re here for the murder mystery, but Inanna is such a delightful new character that I feel inclined to overlook that (I am, of course, also inured against the frustrations of month-to-month comics reading since I stick to trades).

All told, the arc we’re moving into will best be read mostly as the second half of a larger story that Gillen and McKelvie began in the first five issues.  Lucifer’s death was a good point of resolution in miniature, but there are lots of things that still need to addressed with regard to the plot that was set in motion at the beginning.

This outfit feels more like a color variant on a Michael Jackson ensemble to me, but Inanna’s not about being boxed in by what people expect him to be. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #5”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine 4”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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