Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1373 AD”

The long and short of this issue is that people tend to be messed up in a lot of ways, and any religion that takes bodily mortification as a central tenet is going to exacerbate those messed up tendencies.  Maybe it’s my own history showing a little bit (that does tend to happen from time to time when I read and think about things), but the sorts of abuse that this issue’s Lucifer takes on herself from all sides feel particularly heart wrenching.  There are lots of ways to do fundamentalism, but they all seem easily recognizable for what they are when you’re no longer in it.  The deeply embedded self loathing tends to give it away.

The more I think about this cover the more I find to love about it. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this final period issue plays with the iconography motif that’s always been a central element of The Wicked + The Divine‘s visual aesthetic.  Framed in the imminently recognizable tradition of Roman Catholicism, the cover has Ananke and Lucifer presented in stained glass in the respective roles of penitent and absolver.  This is roughly what happens inside the issue, except that Ananke predictably lacks all remorse and Lucifer (cathartically) offers no absolution.  The story’s primary beats are caught in a single glass panel, much like how you would see depictions of significant events from the life of Jesus in a cathedral with the key points of each scene distilled down to a few key details that serve as visual touchstones for the stories the audience would have heard many times before.  There’s a nice connection in this cover between the modern comics medium and its sequential art forebears (what are the Stations of the Cross but an old comic and The Wicked + The Divine but a pageant of suffering leading up to the deaths of gods incarnate?).  You can even see the same reliance on visual motifs, a necessary component of a medium like stained glass that demands a simplified depiction of its subjects,  to identify characters like Ananke’s ubiquitous mask (which she doesn’t wear at all in this story) and Lucifer’s red eyes.

For a series about gods and how we relate to them, The Wicked + The Divine up to this point has largely shied away from exploring how modern religious believers would interact with the gods as a known quantity.  The one small nod we got in that direction back in the first issue with the fundamentalist assassins turned out to be a red herring, so there’s really nothing beyond this issue that explores the subject in significant depth.  In the premise of the series, which posits that the Pantheon’s world is exactly like ours except that figures resembling mythological gods appear every ninety years, the question of how these incarnations impact systems of belief is left up in the air.  Cassandra’s skepticism suggests that the lack of documentary evidence of the gods’ powers makes it easy for people disinclined to believe in them to ignore the whole thing, but that doesn’t explain what the effects on true believers might be.  This story, focusing on medieval France and a devout Catholic woman, finally considers the Pantheon in relation to Christianity; given Lucifer’s prominence in the historical issues, this has been an open question hanging in the background of each one-shot.  In 1373 it finally comes to the fore.

I never went to a church that did Communion like this, but it’s easily enough recognized. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue begins much like it ends, with an enactment of Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Table, or whatever particular name for the Christian tradition of symbolically, or metaphysically, consuming the body and blood of Christ you may be familiar with).  The sacrament serves as an introduction to the era and culture we’re going to be examining here; Europe is in disarray as the Black Plague has swept across it, and in Avignon a member of the Pantheon conducts her penance while awaiting her end.  This Lucifer is a Catholic nun, her horns filed down to nubs on her forehead and her place in her order permanently set outside the sanctuary where the diseased rats scurry.  She’s convinced of her own damnation while submitting entirely to the sovereignty of God.  Where every other Lucifer has been a rebel or iconoclast, this one instead embraces her role as the defeated in a larger cosmological game.

What makes this Lucifer so striking is her sense of surety about her own identity, even before she ascends.  In a flashback, the woman comes to Ananke and declares before any other words can be exchanged that she knows that she is Lucifer.  The rationale for this self identification rests on her history: her mother died in childbirth, and her father resented his daughter as the cause of his wife’s death.  The loathing conferred by a grieving parent onto his child became internalized to the point that she actively identifies with the fallen angel.  It’s a terrible backstory, but the internalized self-loathing encouraged by a faith that requires constant self deprecation and supplication to the deity rings true.  When I was an evangelical, there were certain mental gymnastics that I was in the habit of doing as part of the faith practice; in a system governed by the doctrine of utter depravity, it wasn’t unusual to meditate on how unworthy I was of salvation.  Needless to say, this sort of attitude about my own self worth (really, it’s easy to devalue yourself when you have a regular mantra in your mind about your status as a helpless sinner who deserves to go to hell) did a number on me.  Lucifer’s self loathing is of a piece with what I remember about the darker parts of my evangelical days; it’s only in her resorting to flagellation and other physical punishments that Lucifer’s attitude about her own being feels more extreme.  While her final act serves to bring some sort of just punishment, however ephemeral, on Ananke, she spends her final breaths begging forgiveness for the crime of being who she is.

All I’m saying is that this is not that far off the mark from how abusive strains of Christianity make its adherents feel about themselves. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Speaking of Ananke, the version that we see in this issue is probably the most repulsive of the series to date.  I know that all Anankes are more or less the same person inhabiting an endless series of bodies, but this one, with her callous reflection on how she created the Black Plague as part of an experiment with the previous Pantheon and her general indifference at the effects of her actions beyond ruling them as a mistake she’d prefer not to repeat, really angers me.  We’ve seen in the Mothering Invention arc that Ananke is a ruthless killer who only cares about self-preservation, but the way that she inflicts mass death on the world on a caprice and then completely rejects any sense of guilt about her actions makes her deeply monstrous.  The whole point of the issue is to do an exercise in contrasts with Lucifer, who feels guilty about everything, including stuff that she has no control over, and Ananke, who feels no remorse despite her direct responsibility for at least one massive social catastrophe and scads of murders.  These two characters are worlds apart until they unite in an inverted Communion: the innocent devil delivers her corrupted body to an unrepentant sinner and burns the both of them to pure ash.  It’s all very “too much” which is always what WicDiv strives for.

Ananke’s whole thing about feeling constantly out of place and bewildered by the way the world changes is such an old person thing. I know feelings of displacement accompany aging, but I can’t think of anyone who deals with that angst less gracefully than Ananke. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Next time we’ll finally get a break from doom and gloom and talk about the issue with a load of ridiculous origin stories and more than a few excellent jokes (for a certain value of excellent).

It’s happened before. It’s happening again. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #39”

This issue feels a little weird in comparison to previous issues that conclude story arcs.  There are the macro beats that we’ve become accustomed to with the end of each WicDiv arc: we get a couple of significant revelations, a major question left to be answered, and the status quo of members of the remaining Pantheon shifts to match the developments of the arc.  What’s a little unusual here is just the number of scenes that Gillen packs into this issue.  The structure that he’s used to organize each issue of this arc has been built around two broad movements, one focusing on a part of Ananke’s history and the other pushing the story in 2015 forward.  Unlike in previous issues, where the flashback sequence is front loaded to give more context to the present day happenings, this issue intersperses scenes from Ananke’s final encounter with her sister (we still don’t know her actual name, so I’m going to continue calling her Epithymia) between the present day developments with Laura, Minerva, and Woden.  It’s understandable why there’s a shift in the broad structure of the issue (the reveal in the last section of the flashback is necessary to renew hope in the reader and work towards reversing some uncomfortable implications that are set up by the latest development in Laura’s story), but it makes the issue feel very frenetic in comparison to everything else in this arc.

Yeah, Ananke would totally murder you. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover continues the arc’s ongoing motif of featuring either Ananke or an Epithymia god featured in the flashback sequence.  Here, we get a portrait of the original Ananke in her 4000ish BCE outfit, replete with cow skull mask and vibrant purple eyes.  She’s splattered with the blood of her victims (in a delightful bit of coloring continuity, the pattern of blood splatter in this portrait is the same as when she appears at the very beginning of issue #34 before killing Epithymia) and looks ready to add another to her tally.  This is a very different portrait of Ananke from the one on the cover of issue #9.  The imperiousness is still present (it’s probably just an illusion, but I always feel like Ananke’s looking slightly down at the reader in her portraits), but the blood and the bone accessories make her feel far more immediately threatening than she seems in her 2014 fashion.

I know it’s a big gun, but how does no one notice this? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

The big revelation for this issue is that Epithymia, in a bid to trip Ananke up at some point in the future, just straight up lies to her about the final rule to be set in their story game.  As she dies, Epithymia declares that if her god ever has a child then the cycle will be broken.  Ananke takes this idea and runs with it, speculating that if the Epithymia god becomes a mother in her own right, then that breaks the maiden-mother-crone cycle, so of course it makes sense.  It also explains why in the present Laura’s being pregnant is a really big deal that brings Minerva to obsess over killing her as quickly and violently as possible.  What we find in this issue is that the decision Laura made last time relates to a number of things: where it seemed like she might be deciding on suicide, what actually happened is that she has decided to reject all of the labels she’s accumulated over the course of the series.  The result is an as yet inexplicable descent from godhood; when we catch up with Laura in this issue she’s shed the Persephone persona completely and also aborted her pregnancy.  That doesn’t change the fact that Minerva is utterly determined to eliminate all possible threats, and Laura almost gets beaten to a pulp anyway by Beth’s documentary crew (Beth, for anyone who may have forgotten because she only shows up sporadically, is an original member of Cassandra’s documentary crew who struck out on her own after she got fired for tipping Baal off to Laura and Cassandra’s location when they were still investigating the judge’s murder), now outfitted with Woden-crafted super suits in exchange for doing the bidding of the Pantheon’s ascendant evil faction.  It’s sort of comical how reckless Minerva is in her machinations; she turns the very obvious power dial on the stun gun Woden gives Beth all the way up to lethal, and I can only assume the reason no one notices the large flashing red light on the side of the gun is because Beth and her crew are not very observant–a pretty unfortunate trait for documentarians in general.

Me too. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While it gets dispelled as a point of tension here, Laura’s pregnancy hangs heavy over this whole arc (it is called Mothering Invention after all), and there are some complicated things to sort out in relation to it.  Gillen constructs a story where the reader feels invested in protecting Laura’s pregnancy precisely because it seems to be a major threat to Ananke and then he resolves it by having Laura choose to terminate the pregnancy, all before we learn that the whole plot point is a ruse and irrelevant to Ananke’s potential downfall.  In those five pages between Laura explaining she had an abortion and the flashback where Epithymia explains her gambit to her grandson, the reader’s left in a really awkward position (one that Laura herself calls the reader out on because, remember, she’s gone back to breaking the fourth wall in her inner monologue captions).  Laura’s pregnancy was clearly something that Ananke was worried about, and anything that legitimately worries Ananke is probably a positive for the fate of everyone caught up in the Pantheon nonsense, but at the same time we’ve been brought to having an interest in a woman carrying a pregnancy she has only expressed ambivalence about.  Gillen anticipates that there might be some anger directed towards Laura in that liminal moment; he’s been foreshadowing since the beginning of the arc that some readers would be unhappy with the decisions that Laura was going to make.  It all feels like this metanarrative trick to reinforce a political point about the importance of women having the right to choose whether they remain pregnant or not at the expense of the reader, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it.  Is it cheap to make this point in relation to a key plot element in the story, especially when the reader unconsciously begins weighing Laura’s agency against the vast history of Ananke’s exploitation of people for her own gain.  There are elements of the Omelas child in the scenario, although in typical Kieron Gillen fashion everything is terrible for everyone and the atrocity only stops (but not really) one (immense) crime in a world that’s otherwise still as messed up as our own.  When it comes down to it, I’m glad that Laura doesn’t lose her agency and the whole thing was a trick, if only because it means that as a reader I don’t have to spend time puzzling over my own moral complicity in wanting Laura to have the child because it means Ananke’s game is done (I mean, I still do because how could anyone resist this sort of question, but it’s all hypothetical in the aftermath).  There are layers and layers to this whole mess.

The issue concludes by calling back to the end of the very first arc when Laura lit that one cigarette in the dark out of nowhere.  This time it’s not just a little flicker of flame; she creates an entire fireball floating in the air.  Keep in mind, this happens after she’s descended, so we’re not dealing with god powers here (at least, not any god powers that have been explained).  For all the messing with the readers’ heads that Gillen does with the pregnancy subplot, the steady reminders he’s been seeding in about how this one thing that Laura did way back when was weird and didn’t follow any of the rules set out by the universe up to this point is nice.  It feels rewarding if you’ve been keeping up with those low key details (and if you haven’t, noticing them after you reach this point in the series is really fun too).  The new status quo for Laura, as we go into the final arc, is one of relative stoicism.  She rejects all of her old labels while wondering what she actually is supposed to be, and along the way gets philosophical about the imminent mortality aspect of godhood (this wouldn’t be a Gillen story unless someone at some point got all meditative about the fact that we die; reflections on aging and mortality are totally his thing and probably a reason I find most of his work so resonant).  Here’s hoping we get some answers to these questions and others in the final arc.

Thanks for reminding me about the evanescence of life, Laura. Geez. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #38”

Way back in issue #9 there was a bit where Ananke, in the course of her interview with Cassandra, explains that she was the inspiration for the Robert Graves book The White Goddess.  In the real world, this book has a reputation as a poorly researched history of ancient myth that proposes an archetypal goddess figure from which most ancient religion descended.  In The Wicked + The Divine, it’s Graves’s interpretation of Ananke’s history after she spent a night getting drunk in his home and explaining her whole life story.  It’s exactly the kind of relatively obscure thing that Kieron Gillen would pull into his own story’s mythos as a convenient explanation for why no one in a world with observable gods would take the thing more seriously.  This issue finally helps clarify that little incident in more detail, but it mostly goes over my head.  I’m sure if I were more of an ancient mythology nerd I would be able to speak more intelligently about the whole White Goddess thing and how it interacts with what Gillen’s doing here.  As it is, I’m mostly just amused to see Ananke living a relatively normal life in the decades between Recurrences with the occasional bid for recognition of her clandestine greatness.

The coloring’s the star on this cover. There’s a sort of noirish feel to everything with the dust motes and the slatted shadows, like Ananke’s just walked into some private eye’s dingy second floor office. We don’t really get any of that inside the issue though. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover of this issue shows Ananke as a woman in her thirties dressed in 1940s English fashion.  In the whole lineup of covers it stands out as an odd one because it doesn’t match any of the styles that are contemporary with the Pantheons we’ve seen, and there’s almost nothing to indicate that we’re looking at a god.  The lavender eyes, matched to the color of the hat and dress, are a small signifier if you’ve noticed that purple is the color of Ananke’s eyes (a feature that only emerges after each Minerva completes her ritual and absorbs the power from her victims); another small nod to the fact we’re looking at our chief antagonist is the veil on the hat–Ananke does love her masks, even if they’re only symbolic in nature.  The most interesting feature of the portrait is the necklace Ananke wears of a snake; though it’s mostly been obscured, the signature icon of Ananke’s power is a bright green snake striking (that moment in issue #34 when we see the snake manifest as Ananke stabs her sister to death is pretty indelible).  You get all the classical Christian associations of snakes with untrustworthiness plus a nod towards the archetypal supervillain color scheme of purple and green (and without having to actually put any green in the composition) wrapped in one package.

“I don’t like the dark.” is going to be the one thing that helps me maintain a shred of sympathy for Ananke–at least until I get to the last historical special. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Setting aside the Ananke stuff here (I don’t have much to say about what we learn in this issue; she needs to vent to someone, picks a dude who ignores most of what she has to say, and then is unhappy with the result; also, Minerva’s “parents” were just a couple whom Ananke duped into the whole scheme to cover up the fact that her younger self just appears fully formed as  tween when the Recurrence begins), the more interesting bits happen with Laura in the fallout of the Morrigan’s death and Cassandra after she’s been locked up for being, well, a Cassandra.

Laura makes a very important decision. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

With Laura, the Morrigan’s death, and more specifically Baphomet’s reaction to it, give her some insight into the whole messy situation with the Pantheon.  Baphomet (or Nergal, as he finally drops the Crowley act seeing as Laura’s pretty much his only friend left alive) is so caught up in the patterns of his toxic relationship with the Morrigan that even after she’s died he can’t conceive of doing anything that doesn’t revolve around her.  As Laura’s suggestion he carries her body back to their home in the Underground, and while Laura takes in just how much the couple committed to their LARPing, he decides that he’s going to spend his remaining time finishing the shrine to the Morrigan that they’d already begun.  Baphomet’s been utterly hollowed out by his girlfriend, and with her dead there’s nothing left for him to do but hold on to her memory.  His advice to Laura to just not do anything he’s doing resonates more strongly than he probably intends.  Laura’s major moment of epiphany in this issue (she’s been having a lot of those in this arc) comes when she finally makes a decision about, well, a lot of things.  Cassandra’s divination at the issue’s end resulting in no hits on the cosmic search for Persephone suggests that something drastic has happened, although we don’t know what.  The impression I got the first time I read this issue wasn’t that it was anything like suicide (which much of Laura’s narration seems to imply).  It took me a while to figure out why that was, as I was re-reading, but I realized the significant event as Laura proceeds along her internal journey in this issue’s second half is the decision to switch from her fancy (and busted) Eleusinia phone back to her old pre-ascension phone with the cracked screen.

This moment matters a lot, but we won’t see why until next issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

As for Cassandra, the important bit here is her determination that despite being extremely angry with Laura for all the self-destructive stuff she’s done over the last six months, they are still friends, and Cassandra is going to honor that.  It doesn’t do a whole lot to improve her situation as Woden’s captive, but it’s a long way from the detached, in-it-for-herself attitude she took when Laura first asked her to get involved in the investigation of the judge’s murder.  Cassandra is someone who really needs friends, and I’m glad she’s finally realized that (I’m also glad that she decides to cooperate when Verðandi is directly threatened; there’s very little shown of the Norns’ relationship, but I like to think that overall they’re in a very loving and devoted triad and that’s extremely important to Cassandra).

Oh, the feels! (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #37”

In his foreword to Endless Nights, the comic anthology of stories centered around the seven Endless of The Sandman mythos, Neil Gaiman summarizes the original story of The Sandman in this way:

The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.

If you’re familiar with The Sandman, then this encapsulation of the original series is remarkably apt; Dream, being an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, finds that he must do both.  His epiphany turns on the extinguishing of one aspect of himself in favor of a different one.  It’s tragic, and cathartic, and redemptive, and a mess of other things that you expect grand stories to be when they reach their climax.  Issue #37 of The Wicked + The Divine takes this aspirational storytelling and upends it to highlight the petty motivations that animate most human dramas.

Spoiler alert: it’s Ananke again. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue is easily the most unsettling one in the series.  Like with the rest of the covers for the Mothering Invention arc, we’re sticking with the straight on portrait of a significant figure in the Pantheon and Ananke’s intertwined history.  Unlike every other cover, this one is entirely in shadow similar to the coloring scheme that Matt Wilson uses for scenes located in the Underground (coincidentally, a significant location for most of this issue).  The only feature of the subject’s face that we can see are their eyes, wide open in apparent fright.  Something horrible is there in the dark with them, but we don’t know what yet.  In a lot of ways it’s reminiscent of issue #33’s all black cover, though I think the frightened eyes make the issue feel even more foreboding.

We quickly get context for what’s going on with the cover in the flashback to a major episode in one of Ananke’s many lives: about nine hundred years after the beginning of the Recurrence cycle, Ananke is conducting her immortality ritual but minus a head.  It’s clear this is the first time she’s failed to gather the requisite number, and as she siphons off the energy from the three heads she has collected, she urges the ritual to work correctly.

It doesn’t.

Similar to the cascade of pages in issue #36 portraying every reunion between Ananke and the Epithymia god, this issue presents us with a series of panels portraying every year between Ananke’s failed ritual and her reincarnation ninety years later.  They’re all show from her perspective with a caption emblazoned across the top that indicates the year that each panel represents.  All ninety panels are totally black.  The last page of the sequence cuts to a beach in Crete, where we see Ananke suddenly appear as a young teenage girl.  Her first act after ninety years without a body is to gouge deep troughs of flesh from her cheeks with her bare hands, eager to feel anything after so long in total sensory deprivation.

This is the Great Darkness: without completing her ritual, Ananke is doomed to die at the end of every Recurrence with the rest of the gods and then be reborn when the next one begins, but she retains her consciousness for the entire span of time in between.  It’s utterly terrifying, and it explains both simply and effectively why she goes to such lengths to get what she wants.  The ideas of death and oblivion is a hard one to wrap our minds around, because we’re incapable of imagining precisely what the experience of not existing is like.  We can try to describe it, but there’s a fundamental failure in our language and the way our brains process our experience that makes the concept of nullification just too hard to understand.  The closest I think we can get to is what Gillen portrays in this sequence: total sensory deprivation without end.  It makes me uncomfortable just trying to contemplate that experience, but the understanding that if death is oblivion then the mercy of it will be that we won’t know that’s what’s happened.  Ananke has something worse to fear.

In all the stuff that we’ve learned about Ananke over this arc (and there are still two more issues to get through!), I think this is the nadir of her story.  We’re meant to finally understand that Ananke’s ruthless pursuit of immortality isn’t motivated just by a fear of standard death (though that’s certainly in the mix), but also because she’s inadvertently cursed herself to have a worse fate when she fails.  It’s almost enough to make her a sympathetic character.

It’s been too long since these two could bounce off each other. Their dynamic is delightful, especially here where they’re both trying to move past old mistakes. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Back in 2015, we step away from Baal’s incineration of Valhalla to follow Laura as she goes to talk with Baphomet about what’s gone down in the last twenty-four hours (we’ve been on the same two days for about ten issues now), including why he wasn’t available to help with Sakhmet and Woden’s respective snafus.  Because Baphomet and Dionysus were besties, we finally see someone properly mourn for him (Cassandra’s bit in issue #33 got cut short by the discovery of Woden’s secret room after all), and Laura learns that Baphomet didn’t come to help because the Morrigan said there was nothing serious happening.  They realize that the Morrigan intended to leave Laura in the lurch in the hopes that Sakhmet would kill her, and then there’s a big fight.

Baph, you are my favorite walking trash fire. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This fight between Baphomet and the Morrigan is a long time coming, and it’s an intense set of pages.  We’ve seen since the beginning that the relationship between Baphomet and the Morrigan is extremely unhealthy, and Baphomet finally has the same epiphany (and all it takes is seeing that the Morrigan has become so possessive of him that she’s willing to let people she’s jealous of die in order to keep him to herself).  Baphomet dumps her, and then things erupt.  For the entire sequence, McKelvie eschews normal gutters in favor of having each panel bordered by either a raven or a flame motif depending on who’s gone on the offensive.  Interspersed between each action shot is a small flashback panel to when Cameron and Marian first met; we’re caught in the middle of something like a scream-o break up song.  How much the borders expand and contract flows with the level of emotion each character is feeling in the moment so that we get an extra visual cue as to how things are going to end; Baphomet has the upper hand at the end of the fight, but the good memories lead him to stay his hand when he could kill the Morrigan, and she retaliates, exulting in her victory before she realizes that she’s just murdered her beloved.  Unwilling to go on living without Baphomet, the Morrigan decides to trade his life for her own, because that’s the kind of person that she is.  It’s sort of redemptive, but very much in a “too little, too late” way.

This is an absolutely perfect panel. Read it from left to right and pay attention to the border. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Laura has been incapacitated for the entire fight (having your head slammed against a wall will do that), but when she finally comes to and realizes what’s happened, she approaches the whole thing in a relatively philosophical manner.

Because what’s at the end of this?  Something awful.  Some fucking tragedy.

Fuck tragedy.

Tragedy gives “clusterfuck” ideas above its station.

The bad romance between Baphomet and the Morrigan is easily one of the most messed up relationships in all of The Wicked + The Divine; they’re codependent binary stars spiraling inevitably towards collapse into one goth hole.  Laura’s observation that this is less a tragedy than just the messy reality of a couple people who’ve been bad for each other from their first meeting feels sort of like a theme statement for the whole issue.  Ananke’s own struggles happen on a much larger scale, but they’re at their core founded in basic human fears and frailties.  Tragedies are for larger than life figures like the Endless; the rest of us just have to deal with things occasionally going horribly wrong.

Geez, Baph, spoilers for Sandman, yeah? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #36”

It’s hard to think of a way into this issue.  Like with most of the issues of this arc, the structure splits space evenly between a flashback that fills in significant details of Ananke’s life and a focus on what’s happening in 2015.  The Ananke portion is the first of two sort of structurally odd sequences that Gillen and McKelvie use to anchor the macro level arc of Ananke’s origins.  We’ll look at the second one in the next issue and the first one after we talk about the cover.

Don’t get attached to this character; she won’t be around long. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

This issue’s cover is a weird one.  It features a woman bearing iconography that immediately suggests she’s one of Epithymia’s gods.  We can recognize the skulls in the pupils and the flower and vine motifs that are Persephone’s signature features in 2015.  Beyond these recognizable features, the woman has long straight hair and kohl around her eyes (we find out on the second page of the issue that she’s from a Pantheon situated in the Upper Nile region in Egypt, so this isn’t that surprising).  I remember there being a lot of speculation back during the lead up to this arc’s publication about whether this cover was supposed to feature the first Persephone, and, well, it’s definitely a Persephone, but I’m kind of befuddled in retrospect that it wasn’t more apparent to folks that Epithymia’s portrait was actually the original.  The skull motif is quite prominent on that cover, although maybe that feature alone isn’t so obviously connected to Persephone (skulls are sort of ubiquitous in the Pantheons).  Either way, this is not the first Persephone (we’re still roughly four thousand years BCE with this character, so I’m pretty sure Persephone hasn’t yet been conceived of).

We’ve seen this scene before. Ananke’s seen it dozens of times. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Regardless of all the speculation about who this cover character is supposed to be, one thing is imminently clear as of the first page turn of the issue: it doesn’t matter one way or another.  What Gillen and McKelvie have done in this issue is highlight the moment of Epithymia’s god ascending in every Pantheon since the first.  Over eleven pages we see sixty five reunions between Ananke and her sister’s avatar.  In the production notes for the trade, Gillen explains that the creative team hired a fashion historian to help McKelvie design the clothing for each time period and locale.  It’s a massively ambitious structural project designed specifically to convey the sheer span of time that Ananke’s been operating in conjunction with the relatively rote repetition of a key moment in each cycle.  According to the rules that Epithymia set back in issue #34, we know that her god is always the last to ascend in each Pantheon, and we know that Ananke has to collect four godheads to complete her immortality ritual at the end of each Recurrence.  Beyond that, we’re left to fill in the blanks surrounding sixty-five panels highlighting a climactic moment in every Pantheon (I mean, aside from the very first one; that first murder was just Ananke stabbing Epithymia with her stone knife; no magical decapitation necessary).  The way each scene plays out follows three broad models: Ananke surprises the Epithymia god and steals their head without difficulty, the god suspects Ananke’s intent and retaliates with varying levels of success (the most spectacular is definitely the one where Ananke has inexplicably lost her lower body as the god flees off panel; there are also a couple times when the god successfully kills Ananke, although we know that her younger incarnation finished the job later), or most peculiarly Ananke has a heartfelt reunion.  There are trends over the course of the pages where sometimes Ananke has a reunion multiple Recurrences in a row and other times she fails to get the drop on Epithymia’s god for several centuries.  We get small implied stories, like the lifetimes where Ananke’s body gets ravaged by disease or injury, or when her younger self has to carry on with the elder’s work.  One of my favorites that I picked up on my most recent reading of the issue is the slow arc of Ananke learning how to protect herself from attack once she realizes that she can’t always count on Epithymia being fooled.  Still, the ultimate effect is to emphasize the cyclical nature of Ananke’s life; she lives forever (sort of), but it’s constantly bound by violent confrontations.  I figure the times when she doesn’t immediately murder Epithymia is because she’s already collected enough heads and can afford to luxuriate a little in remembering who she gave up in her bargain for longevity.  There’s just a hint of sadness to Ananke’s existence, although when you consider the sheer number of people she’s murdered over the course of her life (every panel in this issue times twelve, and that’s only the gods, let alone the normal folks who accidentally got in the way), it’s hard to sympathize with her particular plight.

There’s a lot of time between the earlier panel and this one, but they might as well happen one right after the other for all the difference there is between Ananke now and Ananke then. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Flash forward to 2015, where we last left off with Baal revealing that he’s actually the child-sacrifice, fire-from-the-sky Baal, not the lightning-in-a-bottle Baal.  Laura, Baal’s captive audience, listens as he explains his own origins and how Ananke persuaded him to charbroil little babbies.  What it essentially comes down to is that Baal, who rightly finds killing children to be totally repugnant, decided it was necessary after the Great Darkness killed his father.  The story that Ananke spun for Baal was that sacrificing children would keep the Great Darkness at bay temporarily while they worked on finding a long term solution.  Once he lost something personal, it was an easy sell.  Now, the weird black tentacle beetle monsters that we’ve been calling the Great Darkness still haven’t been fully explained.  Given what we’ve been learning about Ananke in this arc, I don’t think it’s much of a reach to assume that the Great Darkness is a ruse that Ananke has been using to manipulate the gods into doing what she wants.  With Baal committed to doing actual child sacrifice, Ananke developed an extremely dedicated foot soldier; it’s no wonder that Baal is on the wrong side of pretty much every fight in the first half of the series when you consider that he’s totally bought into Ananke’s narrative.  All it took was killing a family member.

A fun exercise is asking myself how many times the small sympathy Ananke builds gets squandered when she does something horrible. This is one of those moments. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While we’re talking about children, this issue also has one last surprise for us in the form of Laura’s big news that she briefly alluded to back in issue #34: she’s pregnant, and she doesn’t know who the father is.  Because he’s just a great big Baal of anxieties and guilt, our child murderer lets Laura go instead of burning her down with the rest of Valhalla to protect his dirty secret.

All joking aside, Baal gets a seriously raw deal here, and the fact that he totally commits to his own moral degradation for the sake of his family, likely for no good reason, is one of the most tragic story beats in the whole series. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #35”

If I have learned anything from The Wicked + The Divine and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, it’s this: never trust adorable young characters with Shirley Temple curls.  After all the revelations in the last issue, you would think that the follow up might be throttled back just a little bit to save some surprises for later in the arc, but that would be a mistake in this particular case.  It’s important to remember that Gillen has kept a lot of details about Ananke’s nature and agenda obscured for most of the series, so there’s plenty of material to spool out as things proceed in an orderly fashion towards doomsday.

I’m never going to be able to watch Heidi the same way again. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features, unsurprisingly, a figure from the Pantheon’s past: the 1923 Minerva.  Given that we know the 2014 Minerva is totally untrustworthy, it’s not a far leap to figure that the earlier incarnation isn’t either.  That this cover opts for a variation of the straight on head shot format (Minerva looks down her nose at the camera, blood spatters and a sneer on her face) that revels in contradictory juxtapositions.  This Minerva takes inspiration from Shirley Temple, a famous child actor of the 1930s who was known for being adorable; unlike her real life counterpart, she’s also a ruthless murderer (if you read the 1923 special, you know that Minerva killed Set when no one was around to witness the execution) and master manipulator.  So much of The Wicked + The Divine has been about misdirection and forcing readers to question their assumptions about characters that a cover showing a major figure from the last Pantheon with a murderous gleam in her eye honestly shouldn’t be surprising.

Exit Ananke as we spotlight in this issue… Ananke. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The flashback for this issue gives us the actual conclusion to both the 1923 special and the flashback from the series beginning in issue #1 (a fun bit of trivia is the fact that McKelvie, having significantly refined his drawing style in the intervening three years, decided to redo the first four pages despite them being panel for panel identical to #1’s opening sequence; if you poke around on Twitter you can find where he posted the juxtaposed pages to show how much his style has changed).  We know from the special why the four remaining gods, Susanoo, Amaterasu, Amon-Ra, and Minerva, are preparing to blow themselves up; Ananke has explained to them that they need to sacrifice themselves in order to undo the ritual that several of the other gods had carried out to try to bend the zeitgeist towards their preferred future.  It becomes apparent here that that story was just a manipulation; Minerva defends herself instead of completing the suicide pact, and she uses Susanoo’s bewilderment at her apparent screw up to decapitate him.

Apologies for the bad quality; it’s hard to photograph trades without hurting the spines. Nonetheless we do what we must. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is the major revelation of the issue: we finally get to see the ritual that Ananke has devised to maintain her immortality firsthand.  The first thing that becomes apparent is that this is a far uglier thing than anticipated.  That Ananke sacrifices the godheads she collects isn’t so surprising; what is surprising is the beneficiary of the ritual.  Instead of Ananke the old woman, whom we’ve seen across all the Pantheons that have appeared, it’s Minerva who completes the ritual and absorbs the power of the godheads.  In 1923, the ritual is preceded by Minerva summarily executing Ananke against her protestations.  It’s not a “steal the gods’ lives so you can live forever” deal; it’s a “steal the gods’ lives so your younger incarnation can live until the next Recurrence” deal.  The somewhat mysterious utterance by Minerva at the end of #33 that she is Ananke now makes sense.  Ananke is both the maiden and the crone in each Recurrence; the rules of the game of stories begin to come into sharper focus.

Immediately we can begin to recontextualize a number of previous scenes, particularly those moments between Ananke and Minerva that suggested a relatively tender relationship.  Before it was easy to imagine that Ananke was just offering small comfort to an especially young victim of the Pantheon’s curse, but now they take on a more sinister tone.  The job of the elder Ananke is to shepherd the gods towards their deaths while making sure the younger Ananke remains safe and unsuspect in the eyes of everyone else.  Apparently each incarnation of Ananke has the memories of her predecessors, but their consciousnesses are distinctly separate once the younger appears (each Ananke’s origin still remains a mystery at this point).  The whole sequence in 1923, particularly the moment when Ananke murders her older self to make sure the ritual can be properly carried out, throws into sharp relief the flashback at the end of Imperial Phase Part 1 where we see elder Ananke (the same person as the 1923 Minerva) writing a letter to her younger self explaining how she accepts that she’ll probably need to die in order for their plan to succeed.  There’s also a reference in that letter to the Great Darkness, although at this point it’s still unclear what that precisely means to Ananke ( we do know, tantalizingly, that Ananke prefers death to allowing the Great Darkness to happen).  It’s a relatively small thing, given that all the Anankes inherit their predecessors’ memories, but the contrast between Ananke as an old woman in 2015 and her as a child in 1923 underlines a sense of aging and progress within each iteration; that direct life experience, however, doesn’t necessarily transfer between bodies (both Minervas are far more cunning and unsentimental in the execution of their respective plans than their elders are).  There’s a slowly dawning horror that Ananke’s ritual, instead of granting her immortality, has instead trapped her in a cycle of rebirth where she repeatedly has to experience death at her own hand without her children ever understanding what’s been done until it’s too late.  It’s like the Great Danton’s fate at the end of The Prestige, if you’ve ever seen that movie.

There’s so much going on here. Too bad it gets cut short. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

 

It feels anticlimactic after discussing the gradually clarifying relationship between Ananke and Minerva to jump to 2015, but there are revelations to be had here too which impact the way we see previous events in the series.  Besides Minerva suddenly being revealed to be a young Ananke with six thousand years of experience rattling around in her brain (no wonder she’s been posing as the goddess of wisdom), we also have some new insights into Baal.  Specifically, it turns out he actually isn’t Baal Hadad, a lightning god; he’s really Baal Hammon, the sun god that Cassandra mentioned way earlier in the series as the figurehead of a cult that actually did practice child sacrifice.  After Laura discovers Baal’s own secret room in Valhalla, we find out that it wasn’t just his followers who did the dirty deed.

But that’s something to discuss more in depth next time.

There are so many great Minerva faces in this issue, and I had to pick one to end on. I went with Minerva being pleased that she’s still manipulating everyone successfully. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #34”

If I were to describe the arc that this issue kicks off, I’d call it something cheeky like “The Secret Origin of the Pantheon’s Greatest Foe: Ananke!”  To be honest, I’m more than a little disappointed that Gillen didn’t get an artist to do a variant cover in the style of Bronze Age superhero comics with that tagline and a scene showing Ananke dramatically murdering someone in front of a shadowy backdrop.  I mean, I know that the stated purpose of The Wicked + The Divine‘s variant covers is to show the state of comics in the period from 2014 to 2019, but I would totally dig a throwback cover.  I’m sure if I really wanted to I could probably poke around on the internet and find some fanart that rocks that particular vibe.

Nice to meet you, original Persephone. Hope we get to spend a lot of time with… oh, and you’re dead after ten pages. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Still, while we’re on the subject of covers, let’s talk about issue #34’s.  To kick off the final year of WicDiv issues, McKelvie and Wilson have returned to the series’s original format: a close cropped, straight on headshot of a character that features prominently in the issue.  In this case, we get a portrait of a character who gets introduced in this issue just before she dies violently.  The elderly woman with the rocking skull tattoo on her face is the original incarnation of Persephone.  We learn tantalizingly little about her in this issue, but it’s enough to understand that she’s as major a player in the Recurrence cycle as Ananke.  From the cover, there isn’t a huge amount that can be gleaned; the headshot covers are generally good for providing detailed studies of a character’s general aesthetic, but because they all require the subject to present with a neutral expression there’s typically not a lot more to be sussed out.  Probably my favorite detail of this cover is the set of three dots underneath original Persephone’s right eye, a detail that mirrors Laura’s own face tattoo.

Okay, this could be about something different, but I figure Ananke names herself after necessity, so why can’t we name her sister after desire? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It feels a little weird to call this character original Persephone though, especially since the issue’s opening page establishes that the first time the Pantheon appeared was six thousand years ago; the Recurrence far predates ancient Greece, so Persephone’s not really an accurate name for this character (we’ll be revisiting this beginning scene a couple more times as the arc progresses, so it’s worth thinking about how best to discuss who and what are depicted in it).  This flashback shows us that Ananke was present at the beginning of the cycle–in fact, she apparently instigated it–and the last god she murdered before she got on with her mysterious ritual was her own sister.  Both characters go unnamed here (again, you can’t apply Greek names to characters who exist before Greek civilization), but there’s a nod to the meaning of Ananke’s name in the midst of things before she gets her Cain on.  We know that Ananke’s name means “necessity”; a recurring motif with her is the fact that she does what she has to in order to remain undiscovered when she would rather act in a more subtle way.  Murdering Laura’s family, for example, is an act of necessity because she fails to leave the scene of Inanna’s murder before any witnesses show up to connect her with what’s happened (as she blows the house up she expresses what I’m going to read as sincere regret that she has to kill a few more people than she planned).  Paired with necessity in this moment in the past (and more broadly as part of a probably universal dichotomy) is desire.  The original Persephone’s name hasn’t been revealed yet at the time of this writing, but I’m going to guess that she’ll eventually be named something like Epithymia, assuming she ever receives a proper name at all.  Until that gets confirmed one way or another, I’m going to go with Epithymia for discussion purposes here.

Letting old people become gods sounds like a way better plan when you know they burn out from the power. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Besides the revelation that Ananke was part of the original Pantheon, which she murdered, and that her sister was also part of the Pantheon, whom she murdered especially hard (Gillen’s script excerpts in the back of Mothering Invention note that he particularly wants the 4000 BCE events to evoke Ananke in the role of Cain with all the baggage that entails if you know your Christian mythology), we get a truckload of new information about the nature of the Recurrence.  The thing that keeps drawing my attention are the gods themselves; in addition to Ananke and Epithymia there are the four godheads in Ananke’s sack, and all six of these figures are elderly.  Part of what we’ve known since the 455 special is that gods, if not killed, will eventually burn themselves out of divine power, but here we have six (relatively) healthy elderly gods.  Did they ascend at a later age, or is it possible that the original incarnation of the Pantheon was designed to not be the death sentence for its subjects that all the later Recurrences end up being?  The high point of the origin story is a sequence where Epithymia and Ananke take turns establishing new rules for the Recurrence going forward (that The Wicked + The Divine‘s origins in-universe are the result of a storytelling game delights me to no end).  One of the rules that Epithymia proposes is that all the gods have to be dead by the end of each Recurrence; she justifies this by pointing out that Ananke would kill them anyway if they aren’t consumed by their divinity.  It’s possible that Epithymia, as the apparent original architect of the Recurrence, had something less lethal in mind when she called the gods to incarnate in mortal people, but it might also be that she intended godhood as a state that elders in her community achieved at the end of their lives; a two year doom is less horrific when inflicted on people who’ve already lived their lives rather than people who are just beginning.

That’s cold, Ananke. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Also notable is the fact that of the gods we see, at least a couple of them are recognizable from the 2014 Pantheon.  Epithymia is clearly the original incarnation of Persephone, and in Ananke’s sack of heads we can see one with Inanna’s star on her cheek (this one isn’t surprising; Inanna is an extremely old real-world god).  On two of the other godheads are markings that seem reminiscent of other present-day gods; one of them has golden eyes that could be connected with Baphomet or Sakhmet (both have golden cat’s eyes; don’t forget that Baphomet’s real identity is Nergal, a much older god whose iconography often associates him with lions), and another has markings that resemble stylized goat horns that may be a reference to Lucifer.  All of this may not actually be relevant to the story being told, but I find it interesting on a world build level; it suggests that the gods that incarnate with each Recurrence are actually a much smaller pool than originally intended.  I’m guessing we’re meant to understand that the gods appear in guises that are culturally significant, but their actual identities are more archetypal.  It makes for some interesting speculation about how one might map broad archetypes onto each Pantheon that we’ve glimpsed (Ananke’s insistence on labeling Persephone “the Destroyer” might also point towards her influence in shaping each Pantheon to suit the story she’s trying to tell).

Lastly (for the origin sequence anyway), I just have to say that I really dig maiden-mother-crone motifs in storytelling.  They’re horrendously reductive when it comes to female characterization (and based exclusively around the state of a person’s uterus), but they make for a fun model to play with and manipulate.  The significance of Ananke claiming both maiden and crone for herself should be immediately obvious (Minerva says she’s also Ananke, and so in our story we have both a “maiden” and a “crone” who appear to have the same goals), and Epithymia claiming mother raises some interesting points of speculation about how Laura plays into all this stuff.  We won’t get too deep into those here though.

This is a major inflection point for Laura. Being trapped in a cage with your best friend and a living head can really put things in perspective. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Moving forward into 2015, there are some things worth noting about what’s going on with Laura and Cassandra.  When last we left our heroines, they had found themselves imprisoned by Woden (revealed to actually be David Blake) in one of his god cages with the living head of his son Jon (revealed to be the actual maker god Mimir).  Laura was in the midst of one of her many self destructive spirals, having just made a pass at Cassandra, when things got awkward and everyone stopped talking to one another.  When things pick up in this issue, Laura has gotten tired of the awkwardness and no one talking, and so we get some long absent caption boxes.  Laura’s narration to the reader was so ubiquitous in the first two arcs, but its complete absence after she resurfaces as Persephone sort of drowned out that earlier feature of the series.  I, at least, had a moment of disorientation as I realized that I hadn’t been directly inside Laura’s head in over twenty issues.  This shift in narrative structure is both jarring and serves as a signal that important things are happening with Laura’s character beginning in this arc.  She stops shutting the reader out at the same time she makes the decision to stop trying to sabotage her own life.  We see her making an effort to help Cassandra figure out what’s going on instead of just sulking, and part of her internal thoughts revolve around her musings on the road to hell–“paved with good intentions” and all that–which she astutely notes is a two-way street.  It’s incredibly refreshing to see Laura doing stuff to try to solve problems instead of grieving.  Given that we’re nearing the series’s end, it’s about time to see our protagonist making decisions that will affect an internal change.

Reclaiming her identity as Laura is a big deal. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Interestingly, at the same time that Laura begins to claw her way out of the grief and depression hole, Cassandra has her own mini-crisis as she reflects on (out of all the recent unpleasantness) Amaterasu’s death and Amaterasu’s belief that everything they were doing as gods had a greater purpose.  The juxtaposition of Cassandra grieving someone she didn’t particularly like (they got into a fight over Hiroshima because Cassandra pointed out how insensitive Amaterasu was about her Japanese appropriation) while having the nihilist’s equivalent of a crisis of faith (“What if there is a meaning to all of it?”) feels like a moment of genuine growth, if only because it revolves around Cassandra exercising a bit of compassion for someone she never respected while considering an alternate viewpoint on the whole meaning of life question.  It’s a moment that passes quickly enough, but it sticks with me; she doesn’t fret over the death of Dionysus, someone she actually considered a friend, or dwell on the apparent waste the last six months have been.  It’s a very un-Cassandra mode.

The fact that the nightmare scenario for Cass is that Amaterasu might be right about something is only the most recently endearing thing about her. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

There are some other bits and bobs worth mentioning from this issue.  Jon has informed Cassandra and Laura that the murder machine is actually a do-nothing machine, and because of this weirdly specific detail, Laura deduces that Minerva isn’t trustworthy.  Also, when Cassandra gets trapped in the god cage, the sliver of her divinity that inhabits the other Norns disappears, reverting them to their normal selves.  This happens while they’re in the middle of a conversation about how they map onto the members of Destiny’s Child; Cassandra is obviously Beyonce, but they’re arguing over who they parallel.  To illustrate her point that Verðandi is probably the one whose name no one remembers, Skuld points out that the press will make the effort to print Urðr’s name correctly, but they’re unlikely to do the same for Verðandi.  In a moment that is either a really meta-joke or a misprint, Skuld pronounces her counterpart’s name Verdanði.  It’s a small thing in a much bigger story, but it’s the weird detail that gets me all excited to pick this series apart.