Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #22”

The end of the “Rising Action” story arc ends with about as much spectacle as we’ve seen from its beginning in issue #18.  McKelvie presents us with an array of spreads and splash panels (heavy emphasis on the splash) that hammer the major moments of the fight between Team Underground and Team Valhalla.  We see Ananke finally brought low, and we get a little bit more explanation for why she’s been so murder happy since the story’s beginning; more importantly than that (because Ananke’s nonsense, as interesting as it is, is secondary to the question of how these characters react to extreme and not-so-extreme circumstances), Laura gets a little bit of catharsis for the trauma of her family’s murder, and we end on a major question.

Be more creepy, Minerva; I don’t feel guilty enough about your impending trauma yet. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features Minerva for the first time, and unlike the other entries in this cover series, she’s not shown in the midst of a performance, but peering at the reader from behind the guts of the mysterious machine that Ananke intends to use to sacrifice her.  The cover’s lighting tips us off that we’re looking out from the machine’s inner workings which, if you want to get super critical (in the academic sense), suggests a kind of complicity between the reader and Ananke’s ongoing sacrificial project.  Minerva is the last god Ananke is trying to off to achieve her ends, and this cover puts the reader at the center of the method by which she intends to consume Minerva for her own ends.  When in doubt about textual criticism, assume that stuff is about the creative process and the audience is probably doing something harmful to the creator or a creator surrogate.  Thanks, Gillen & McKelvie.

It’s definitely not better. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Seeing as this is the resolution to the arc, there are a lot of ends to tie up, so the pacing of the issue shifts from luxuriating in action sequences to getting the primary conflict wrapped up quickly so there’s room for a big interpersonal confrontation among the gods in the depths of Valhalla.  We’ve had enough whizbang to last us for a while in the preceding issues, so instead of spending a lot of pages on finishing the fight, McKelvie gives us a double page spread that captures all the individual fights that carried on in the last issue before zooming in on Woden, who decides he’s reached the battle’s inflection point.  The readers know that Woden has been party to most of Ananke’s machinations, even if she kept him in the dark about specifics (like the point of all the murders), but the rest of the Pantheon don’t, so he arranges to throw the fight in a way that gives him plausible deniability in case Ananke somehow manages to pull out a win.

The main event of the issue is the extended conversation among everyone who’s not unconscious (Woden allows himself to be incapacitated and Sakhmet gets knocked out by Baal after she refuses to agree to a ceasefire) in the depths of Valhalla before Ananke’s murder machine.  Ananke goes on a pretty good tear complaining about the general dysfunction of the gods and her frustration at having to manage them for millennia.  It’s exhausting keeping the Pantheon from running amok while she tries to orchestrate sacrifices for combating the Great Darkness.  We still don’t have any clue what she’s talking about with that beyond her vague descriptions of the pre-civilization gods; Ananke seems to be serious about this particular problem, so maybe there’s something to it, but on the other hand she’s also really good at manipulating everyone into getting themselves killed.  Whether this is a legitimate problem she brings up or one last gambit to get the gods to release her will have to wait for further explanation later.

Well, that’s certainly one reason for all the murder and decapitation. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Out of all the back and forth of the basement discussion, a pattern of motivations emerges.  Laura and Ananke are in direct opposition to one another (beyond simple enmity) because Laura, in her new role as Persephone, represents the complete disruption of Ananke’s imposed order.  Persephone is the thirteenth in a Pantheon of twelve, defies the normal rules for miracles (she can affect Cassandra and break Valhalla’s walls; perhaps her particular talent is breaking down obstacles in her way), and she’s looking to take Ananke out.  She resists manipulation in a way that makes it very hard for Ananke to work around her–if the situations were reversed, Ananke would absolutely kill her.  Even though it’s hard to tell what precisely Ananke’s ultimate goals are, we know that she has them, and she constantly works to make her goals happen.  She gives the gods a purpose (whether they like it or not); under Ananke’s guidance, we know that the Pantheon means something.

Said every frustrated adult ever. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Cassandra’s role is less in conflict with the others so much as just trying to slow everything down so the gods can get some answers.  She wants to keep everything grounded in reality, but she’s actually really bad at it.  This is what happens when you have a nihilist trying to wrangle a bunch of gods.  Still, she jumps into the role of “grown-up” with both feet quite readily after everyone confirms that Ananke is trying to kill them all.  One begins to wonder if Ananke’s relatively quiet frustration at the gods’ behavior is just Cassandra’s rage after being worn down by multiple millennia of herding a bunch of extremely destructive cats.

This moment is supposed to be really horrifying and gruesome, but I can’t help getting the giggles when I look at Baphomet and Dionysus’s faces. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Ultimately Laura overwhelms all other points of view; Ananke killed the Wilsons as simple collateral damage, and she has to pay for that.  Persephone is the “Destroyer” and she lives up to it, showing total indifference to what the rest of the Pantheon wants.  The order of Ananke is over, and now, without anyone left to act as a guide, Laura declares a free-for-all.  Theology of necessity makes way for a messy existentialism.

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #21”

The first thing you must understand about reading The Wicked + The Divine is that under no circumstances do you trust Ananke.  At this point in the series it’s become abundantly clear that whatever she is doing is bad business for everyone connected to the Pantheon, and there’s no real explanation for what her aims are.  We’ve gotten a few rumblings from her about the “Great Darkness” and that whole story she fed Cassandra about her role as a guide to keep the gods from going so far off rails that they plunge the world back into a pre-civilized state, but given that this issue has Ananke killing regular folks (pour one out for Minerva’s greedy parents) and actually telling Woden that she left bait in Owly deliberately for Team Underground to find (not to mention all the ways we see that she manipulated people behind the scenes in Woden’s flashback issue) it’s pretty safe to say that you should take any justification Ananke offers for her actions with a salt lick.

The colors are nice on this cover, but like it’s subjects, it’s just kind of there. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue for the first time features neither a god nor a god-like character (I’m still pretty unsure how to classify Ananke since she basically has a power portfolio like the gods but not their apparently limited life span); instead it features Woden’s Valkyries doing their thing.  This is probably one of the few covers of the series that I feel very neutral about, mostly because the Valkyries have felt from the beginning like a background feature to me.  They serve as proxies for Woden to exercise his powers, and via the subplot with Kerry getting booted out of the group (and the plight of Eir, the pink Valkyrie assigned to babysit Sakhmet) we learn that they’re a heavily mistreated part of the Pantheon’s extended entourage.  Besides being modeled on artificially formed girl groups (I’m thinking specifically of Japanese idol collectives, although Gillen and McKelvie might be pulling inspiration from elsewhere), the Valkyries are just… there.  You generally want to sympathize with them because their relationship to Woden definitely has shades of Ke$ha and Dr. Luke, but they’re otherwise really flat.  That the reason they feature on the cover of this issue is because they’re the conduit for a new toy that Woden has devised only hammers that point home harder.

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

Despite the relative flatness of the Valkyries, there are some good character moments in this issue.  Baphomet tries to extend an olive branch to Baal by way of delivering Inanna’s last message to him (I guess he just really needed to vent about Baal beating up and imprisoning the Morrigan), adding to the small but not insignificant pile of evidence that he is not a complete and total loser.  Amaterasu, on the other hand, demonstrates one of her worse qualities when she panics and flees from Valhalla after Ananke threatens her.  The fleeing isn’t so bad, but the fact that she forgets to take Minerva with her really is.  The recurring theme around Amaterasu seems to be the fact that she’s a very pleasant person so long as things don’t get heavy, but as soon as there’s major conflict you cannot count on her for anything (she does, in the very first arc, completely abandon Lucifer to prison despite being one of her best friends; I guess Amaterasu is just that scared of Ananke).  Dionysus and Laura have a nice moment during the assault on Valhalla where he reiterates that he doesn’t want anyone to die, and Laura, with literal skulls in her eyes, agrees.  I totally believe that she’s going to uphold that promise.

There is a lot of nonsense that happens in this issue, but at least it’s fun-to-look-at nonsense. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Baal, you a liar. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

And… that’s sort of it for this issue.  While I think this arc is a ton of fun, it lends itself better to being read in one go.  Particularly in an issue like this where so many pages are built around action without a whole lot of dialogue, the actual content feels slim.  You have things like the sequence where Ananke murders Minerva’s parents before taking Minerva down to the mysterious sacrifice machine that Woden’s built in the Valhalla basement, which have barely any dialogue at all.  The silent panels are effective for conveying the terror of this moment where Ananke reveals emphatically that she’s a ruthless killer, but they also read extremely quickly.  Your attention bounces from the actual disintegration of the parents to Minerva and Amaterasu’s shocked reactions to a sort of slow-motion sequence where Amaterasu bolts while Ananke grabs Minerva, and then the scene ends on a gag about the documentary crew huddled in the corner of the room who everyone else forgot about.  It’s a really fun two pages, but it’s over incredibly quickly.  That’s not the only sequence in the issue that devotes a lot of space to a single, temporally swift moment, but it’s exemplary of the style of the issue.  Fortunately, the next issue closes out this arc, which means that a lot of stuff is going to happen.  There will be death and destruction, and also more than a fair few feels.

Y’know, Ananke, if you just stopped manipulating and killing people, things might not turn out so bad all the time. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #20”

I don’t think it’s much of a secret that out of the entire Pantheon, I have something of a soft spot for both Cassandra and Baphomet, so an issue that centers around Cassandra learning that Laura is alive while also giving us a ton of new information about what Baphomet was up to after Ragnarock is going to be right up my alley.  Besides featuring a couple of my favorite characters, this issue has the bonus of being the mid-arc breather in the middle of The Wicked + The Divine‘s version of an action movie.  While it’s not exactly accurate to say that all the plot stuff stops, the focus has decidedly shifted back onto character interactions and complicated feelings over McKelvie drawing awesome fight scenes.

This is the most dignified Cassandra gets to look in this issue; every interior panel involves her being angry, confused, or recovering from the effects of getting miracle-whammied. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Apropos of this issue being Cassandra’s reintroduction following the hiatus between the third and fourth arcs, she and the other Norns get the cover for the issue.  Like the others in this set, they’re depicted in the middle of a performance, although unlike in their debut at Ragnarock there’s a hint of color to it this time.  The whole image is far less abrasive than that stark black and white splash page from issue #10, but it still conveys a certain imperiousness that Cassandra would find very satisfying (especially since one of the series’s best running jokes is her undignified indignant tantrums whenever someone does something against her perfectly reasoned advice).  Since all the covers in this set are more about showing the gods being dynamic instead of just posing in static glamour shots, it makes sense that these would be the way they most want others to see them.  I find Cassandra so endearing because she’s perennially frustrated with not being taken seriously, and this cover’s a chance for her and the rest of the Norns to project how they see themselves.

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

The frame for this issue is Laura’s reunion with Cassandra in the rubble of what was formerly the Wilson residence.  It’s emotional in all the ways you would expect for Cassandra, who is only comfortable with the open expression of feelings like contempt, anger, and resignation, while Laura is much more reserved.  That reservation is understandable; in the past couple issues we’ve just gotten a few glimpses of Laura’s emotional state in the aftermath of Ananke trying to kill her and blowing up her home.  She’s on a mission right now, and that’s what she’s trying to focus on.  The brief moment that she and Cassandra have here is just a small outlet for all those pent up emotions that we’ve only otherwise seen conveyed through Laura’s performance at her premier (“Persephone’s in hell” is not exactly a subtle message).

Other important details that we glean here are the fact that not only do Laura’s powers work on Cassandra (remember, Cassandra has the unique talent of being immune to all divine performances because she’s a stone skeptic and nihilist) but they work at a distance via other god technologies.  An established thing about the Pantheon are that their fans have to see them in person in order to experience their miracles because they don’t transmit through recordings; yes, you can handwave that Owly is special because it’s something that Minerva created (probably with Woden’s help; I’m not sure if that’s ever been made clear), but the fact remains that Laura can miraculously communicate over distances with even the most divine-averse individuals.  She’s not an official part of the Pantheon, and there’s good reason for that (one other small evidence to throw onto the “Persephone is something weird” pile is the fact that she was able to break through the walls of Valhalla, which, given the mad scrambling that the Morrigan and company did while trying to escape, is probably not something that just anyone can do).

“This is strange and scary and definitely not how things are supposed to work.” -Cassandra’s brain at this moment. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

The main event of the issue though is the flashback to what happened the night of Ragnarock.  This entire sequence is done in this lovely three color palette of white, pink, and blue that helps keep everything firmly grounded as not just a flashback, but Laura’s memories of what’s happened the last couple months.  Gillen cheats a little bit with the narrative here, because so much of this flashback is about scenes that Laura only heard about after the fact from Baphomet, but that’s honestly a minor quibble.  The important thing is that Laura is using her powers to dump a whole lot of exposition into Cassandra’s brain, and the coloring that Matt Wilson does here helps immensely in keeping that fact front and center.  A few of the pages here are composed of recycled panels from issue #11 (in at least one case, there’s an entire page reproduced exactly); it’s a common trick that Gillen discusses frequently in his writer notes of seeing how the creative team can creatively use artwork to expand the page count of any given issue where they’re working with a specific production budget.  I haven’t bothered to count the pages in issue #20, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a little longer than average because of all the artwork that Wilson only had to recolor instead of McKelvie reproducing it from scratch.

Besides showing that Baphomet was actually extremely upset about the Morrigan being captured, this panel also nicely showcases the two ends of the color spectrum used in the flashbacks: neon pinks for heat and rich teals of various values for cool. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Production wonkery aside, the important story beats to gather from this sequence are that Baphomet ended up having too much of a conscience to go through with murdering Inanna (but not enough of one to not blow up a church), Inanna ended up being the person who was murdered in Laura’s place when he and Baphomet showed up to rescue her, and Laura spent over a month in a dark pit while she hid in the Underground with the dude with the worst PR in the whole Pantheon.  There was also some canoodling because Baphomet, pulling a page directly out of the playbook that Marian used to comfort him after his own parents died, tells Laura way more about himself than he probably should, including the fact that he is not actually Baphomet (he’s really Nergal, which is the name for a bunch of Underworld type gods in various tabletop RPGs; this is the kind of obscure thing that absolutely would bug Cameron endlessly even though no one else would know or care; heck, I’ve googled this factoid multiple times, and I’m still not sure which Nergal he’s embarrassed to be associated with, although my personal headcanon is the dude from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy).

I can’t stop laughing at this panel. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Anyway.

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

This issue is full of feels for several of my favorite characters, and it does a lot to recontextualize Baphomet’s actions during the “Commercial Suicide” arc so that he doesn’t seem like quite the selfish jerk that he came off as at the end of issue #12.  Laura is drowning in grief on top of her already manifest depression (pretty sure suddenly becoming a god doesn’t do anything to alleviate already present mental health issues), and Cassandra is still the best person to rant about everyone else’s stupid decisions.  Next issue will get back to the regularly scheduled mayhem.

Bonus panel! This exchange precedes Laura initiating sex, because who doesn’t think nerd pedantry is the hotness? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #19”

This is not a bad issue to read as part of a trade, but the thing that stands out to me about it is that in isolation it feels like relatively little plot stuff happens and character development is at a minimum.  In terms of absolute movement through the story beats, this issue gives us a little bit of insight into Ananke’s motivations (she’s sacrificing gods to try to stop the “Great Darkness,” and Minerva appears to be her preferred fourth mark); gets Dionysus aligned with team Underground; and moves Minerva, the McGuffin/newly significant character, back into Ananke’s possession in order to give everyone a reason to come together and fight some more.

Dionysus has the best coloring effects. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The big thing (at least for me) in this issue is that Dionysus gets yanked into all the shenanigans.  Aside from telling Woden off for objectifying Tara in the Amaterasu issue, he’s not been a major presence since his introductory issue, and I’ve wanted to see more of him ever since.  We get to see in a brief scene here an expansion on the idea that Dionysus is paying a steep price for constantly using his god powers to hold his raves (he’s up to party number twenty-eight, and he’s only been active for about nine months at this point; that’s essentially like taking only one weekend off a month from partying).  In the middle of a set he has what looks like severe chest pain, and to manage it he decides to take a break and go drink a soda, because Dionysus is still doing the no-sleep version of divinity.  No matter how much I like the character, I still feel like he needs to practice some better self care.  At least he gets a really nice cover for this issue with some excellent neon colors from Matt Wilson.

In the back-and-forth of the Minerva football we also have a few moments that give us an update on the emotional state of most of our main players.  Laura is hurting bad after the murder of her family, which explains the heavy emphasis on the underworld aspect of Persephone in her performance in the previous issue versus the very brief bit of brightness that she exhibited before Ananke tried to click her head off (an explanation of what happened there is forthcoming, but not in this issue).  Given that Laura was dealing with a pretty deep depression over the generally directionless state of her life before she ascended, it isn’t surprising that the violent death of her parents (with a person who is unambiguously to blame) would leave her deep in the rage and revenge end of the emotional pool.  Layered on top of that is her recent fling with Baphomet while they were planning to rescue the Morrigan, which seems like a time bomb just waiting to go off; in a lot of ways it seems the only thing keeping it from coming to a head after Ananke not-so-subtly alluded to their dalliance as Team Underground fled from Valhalla is the fact that no one on Laura’s side trusts Ananke at all anymore.

Easily my favorite moment in the issue. I know I hate when a friend drags me to the Underworld when I’m trying to slam down a sugary soda. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Other characters are in somewhat less complicated situations.  The Morrigan and Baphomet, after both being betrayed by Ananke in pretty straightforward ways, are mostly just angry at the moment, though they do have slightly different reasons for going along with Laura (Baphomet trusts her, and the Morrigan thinks that both he and Laura are telling the truth).  Minerva has spent some time thinking over Laura’s story and doing her own research prior to her extraction from Valhalla, and she’s deduced that something fishy must be going on with Ananke–also she’s still worried about her parents in that very performative, “I feel obligated to them because they’re kin,” way.

On Ananke’s side, the general feeling is that the sky gods are mostly just being manipulated.  Ananke emphasizes to Baal that Baphomet is responsible for Inanna’s death.  She sort of bullies Amaterasu into compliance by painting Laura as ruthless despite her earlier friendliness with the whole Pantheon, and Sakhmet agrees to go along with whatever because she’s mad that Laura got the best of her in their last fight.  Woden is nonplussed that Ananke lied about Laura being dead, but he’s otherwise on board with whatever plan it is she’s working on (he’s been building a contraption for Ananke that does something he doesn’t understand, but which seems related to the god sacrifices she’s been making).  All said, Team Valhalla seems to be comprised entirely of folks who are easily manipulated or too morally bankrupt to care.

All this doesn’t change the fact that Ananke is still super sketchy, and no one should trust her, let alone the reader.  All I want to say at this point is that she takes the time to talk to Owly about her devious plans before sending the thing to track down Minerva, and then it gets left behind where Team Underground can see the recording.  It’s almost like she wants them to come running back to Valhalla to save Minerva from the inevitable monstrous sacrifice.

I know Laura’s setting up for a cool one-liner to end the issue, but the dialogue in this panel doesn’t really feel like it matches the art; everyone looks just a little too posed to me. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #18”

Jamie McKelvie is back on art and Laura Wilson is back in the spotlight, and this issue is so gloriously refreshing after the “Commercial Suicide” arc.  I probably spent close to a year waiting to start this arc after the last one, and the first time I read my copy of the fourth trade, I think I ran through the whole thing in a single sitting.  This arc is very much a “things happen” story, with lots and lots of plot movement meant to contrast with the sort of meandering feeling of the series of one-off styled stories that we just completed.  It’s a little lighter on character exploration (but not too much), and traditional action takes center stage a lot more over the typical talking heads that Gillen and McKelvie favor for their characters’ extended conversations about what’s happening.

I love this upcoming series of covers. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Sergio Serrano; Image credit: Comic Vine)

To mark the new arc, we also have covers designed with a new motif, replacing the focus on the characters’ torsos with a more typical full body shot in a dynamic pose that highlights major features of each character’s divine nature.  The series begins with Laura, the first time she’s featured on the cover since the very first issue, now fully ascended as Persephone.  Because the classical Persephone’s myth is centered around motifs of death and renewal (she signals winter with her journey to the Underworld every year, and when she returns she ushers in spring), Laura’s miracles all strongly feature a duality between flowering plants and skulls.  In a pantheon that Ananke quite likes to divide into sky and underworld gods, this Persephone straddles the line between.

The parallel plots in this issue bounce between Laura at her debut gig as Persephone, which predictably blows up when people realize there’s a new god (one thing that had eluded me until recently was the emphasis on the gods performing live; their miracles can’t be recorded, so the only way to experience the things they do is directly in person) before Ananke shows up to try to eliminate Laura before word can get out about the whole attempted murder thing (which apparently failed, although we don’t yet know how), and the Morrigan’s escape from Valhalla with the help of Minerva and the ever superfluous Baphomet (they were doing just fine escaping before he showed up for a rescue).  The issue’s big reveal at the end is that Laura was actually coordinating with Baphomet because they shacked up together underground in the two months that have passed since she ascended.

And… cue catchphrase! (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Those are all the basic details you’d need to get if you just wanted to follow the action: Laura survived somehow, and she’s now assembled her own faction of disgruntled gods looking to get revenge on Ananke for all her manipulations.  Hijinks to imminently ensue.

“You became a crappy orphan, Baphomet. Please spare Minerva the same fate.” (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What I find more fun about this issue (and I’m saying this after having read the thing at least four or five times because I am a terrible close reader of comics) are all the little moments that call back to things we’ve recently learned or seen the characters go through during the last arc.  Baal and Baphomet exchange serious blows over the abuse they dealt to Inanna and the Morrigan (Baphomet, in typical fashion, beats all the humor out of a joke that didn’t start out that funny, while Baal rams his point home with extreme clarity); Sakhmet and Laura have a moment of ridiculous sexual tension in the middle of trying to kill one another (it’s not clear exactly how long they danced together at Dionysus’s party); the Morrigan can’t resist dressing up a straightforward message like, “I know Ananke’s been lying to you all”; and all the best/worst catchphrases of The Wicked + The Divine reappear.  Things are moving along at a mile a minute, but it’s all informed by the rich level of detail that’s been put into these characters after nearly two years’ worth of story.

The sky gods react very much in character to the news that they’ve been dropped into a punching book for the next five issues. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

This isn’t just insulting to the Goddess of Wisdom; it’s insulting to a regular thirteen-year-old. Kids understand hypocrisy pretty early; it’s why they often have a fascination with authenticity versus “fake.” (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The character who really gets the most new development here is Minerva.  She’s been mostly a background character up to this point with only little hints at what her experience of the Pantheon has been like.  She’s significantly younger than the other gods (all the present-day action takes place within about twenty-four hours from the night before through her thirteenth birthday), which grants her significantly less autonomy to get involved in all the drama of her older peers.  I think the youngest of the other gods are at least seventeen at the story’s start, which puts them close enough to legal adulthood to let them get into a lot of trouble.  Except for Laura’s parents (who at this point are quite dead, sadly), the only real adult presence in the gods’ lives is Ananke, and she is ridiculously permissive for reasons that are still quite obtuse.  Not so with Minerva; her parents hover in the background with her at major moments like the Fantheon where she did the god equivalent of signing autographs for money.  Laura muses on the fact that Minerva’s parents seem to be milking their cash cow daughter as much as they can before she inevitably dies young; in this issue we see more direct evidence that that’s the case.

The way all this reflects on Minerva shows that she has an extremely complicated relationship to her parents.  In the midst of all the chaos of the Morrigan’s escape and Baphomet’s attempted rescue, she begs the underworld royal couple to get her parents out as well.  A bit of hesitation (“I… can’t… I mean, I won’t leave them.”) signals that Minerva feels deeply ambivalent about her relationship with her parents; as everyone is fond of pointing out (much to her annoyance), she is the Goddess of Wisdom, so she’s not ignorant of the way her parents are exploiting her for profit.  Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t come to fruition since Laura arrives to save everyone from a bad spot (while munching on a pomegranate, because what other kind of fruit would Persephone eat?) and whisks them into the underground without Minerva’s parents in tow.

Yeah, this is a very busy arc.

Children model their behavior on what they observe. Here, Minerva lies, just like the only adult figure who we’ve actually seen treat her with something like real compassion. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

On Remixing

One of the fun things about doing deep dives on The Wicked + The Divine is taking time to explore the pop culture influences on the series.  Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are both huge music nerds (someday I’m going to go back and read the rest of their series Phonogram, which is about folks who perform magic through different genres of music), and they like to share what things are influencing the stuff that appears on the pages of WicDiv.  Gillen is an especially good resource for this stuff, because he writes up notes on each issue that he publishes on his Tumblr, and he maintains an ever expanding playlist on Spotify for music that is relevant to the characters and themes he’s writing into the comic.  For someone like me, whose pop culture knowledge just never really expanded into the realm of pop music (I grew up listening to country music), these are valuable resources.

Along a different track, I’ve been very slowly cultivating an appreciation for hip hop music over the last couple years (emphasis on very slowly; I’m down with stuff by Kendrick Lamar, but I’ve had a hard time branching out from there).  Along with learning about the music, I’ve also taken an interest in the history of the culture at large (it helps that there’s been a recent surge in high profile projects that are exploring hip hop’s roots in the Bronx during the late ’70s).  One of the most interesting things learning about the early days is musical practices of sampling and mixing.  Because hip hop began as a party culture, the use of other artists’ music wasn’t really a problem because performances happened live in spaces where paying other artists for use of their material wasn’t a concern.  When rapping shifted from being a live performance art form to something that could be recorded, there was a fair bit of angst over the fact that you needed to have original music on the records for the MCs to work with in order to avoid running into legal problems (not to mention the way this cut DJs out of the recording process when they had been the initial, chief stars of the hip hop scene).  The work of DJs took a backseat in the context of recording because their art was repurposing others’ music into something new and interesting in a real time context (part of the appeal of early DJs like Grand Master Flash was the potential for improvisation and showmanship in mixing together parts of different songs and records).  That can’t be done on a recording, so the artistry moved from performance to careful crafting of interesting tracks.  While the DJ remains an important figure in any party music scene, in the studio their work was folded into the domain of the producer.

What I never really thought about in any great detail before is the way that hip hop’s tradition of mixing has been integrated into the production of a lot of pop music from the last forty years.  This is where The Wicked + The Divine has been a really useful cipher for thinking about that aspect of the music.  In his early writer’s notes, Gillen talks pretty frequently about the direction the creative team decided to go in presenting the gods’ miracles, and one of the key aesthetics they agreed to continuously return to is the hyper-saturated colors and digital artifacts that signal the miracles’ reality bending nature.  The gods literally take the rules of the universe and twist them into something that’s recognizable while still being distinctly different from the original.  They’re doing remixes.

I’ve become fascinated with this idea of remixes lately because I’ve been listening to a lot of a electronic-pop group (which I discovered, naturally, through the WicDiv playlist) called Chvrches.  My introduction to them was the weird, moody “Science/Visions,” a track that’s full of a bass track that you more feel than hear underneath synthesizers that uncomfortably remind me of the ’80s (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to disassociate synthesizers from ’80s era music) and vocals that alternate between a sort of breathy, ethereal quality and something deeply menacing.  It’s strange stuff, but I find it really compelling.

The weirdness of the elements of this track drew me in enough that I checked out Chvrches’s other stuff, and what I found was a pretty rich library of songs that are full of the same mix of heavy synthesizers and light vocals which just hit the right buttons for my brain.  That wasn’t the only thing though; Chvrches belongs to a different strain of the same tradition of mixing and remixing that comes down from hip hop, and appropriately they have a large selection of their tracks that have been remixed by other artists in collaboration.  Take, for example, this song, “Bury It.”

This is a lighter track with a more percussive bass line and a heavier emphasis on the vocals; the instruments are working to support the vocals that draw a very simple picture of someone working through the fallout of a relationship that just didn’t work out for whatever reason.  It’s definitely a lot brighter than “Science/Visions,” but more of an upbeat, happy track considering the subject matter.

Now, this is where it gets interesting (to me, anyway).  The one track that I am absolutely in love with from Chvrches is actually a remix of “Bury It” created by the group Keys N Krates.  What was a pretty staid song that I’d categorize as a break up tune becomes this incredibly energetic track that takes samples from the vocal track and repurposes them to complement the heavier percussion of this version.

The tempo’s elevated, there’s a new keyboard track that helps introduce more sense of motion into the melody, and the entire vocal line has been distorted and sped up to blend more with the instrumentals so that the song’s origins as a break up tune are majorly occluded.  I know it’s weird, but I am so into this at the moment.  It’s so incredibly delightful to explore this music and consider how different artists take an existing piece and rework it to emphasize whatever their signature style happens to capture to such an extent that you can still see the original piece while enjoying something really different.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #17”

This issue wraps up the “Commercial Suicide” arc that’s been taking a casual stroll through the lives of the gods who up to this point in the story have largely avoided the spotlight.  Our final subject in the series is Sakhmet, who is a really hard character to get a read on.  In a cast of characters that are all deeply flawed but at least have some sort of empathic hook, Sakhmet stands out as the platonic ideal of a hedonist: she spends every waking moment in pursuit of sex, alcohol, or violence, and the rest of the time she tries to sleep.  While some of the other gods feel like they’re performing what they think their role should be, Sakhmet fully submerges herself in the identity of capricious cat god.

Cover of The Wicked + The Divine #17. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan)

This is not to say that there’s nothing to Sakhmet; Gillen gives us enough to understand that her emotional blankness is a defense she’s put in place to cope with a difficult childhood.  The problem that I run into as a reader is that Sakhmet’s adamant about not dwelling on the past; unlike Tara or Amaterasu or the Morrigan, Sakhmet just doesn’t present a clear connection between her history and her behavior beyond wanting to ignore it.  She’s a character who dares the reader to look for deeper meaning in her actions while reveling in her own rejection of the same.  Frankly, it’s kind of infuriating.

I can’t even rightly say that infuriation is the point of Sakhmet; she’s determined to do nothing but live in the present as some sort of mindfulness savant, and a massively important part of that is her utter indifference to everyone else.  She takes the cat god thing extremely seriously–or maybe she doesn’t; her inscrutability is kind of the point.  All I’ve been able to glean from Sakhmet as a character up to this point is that she’s the embodiment of apathetic chaos.  She’s not evil in the way that Woden is, but she’s definitely dangerous.  I mean, she shows off that she can keep up with Baal in combat without really trying, and the big twist of the issue is that she seeks out her father and eats him on a whim.  It’s no wonder that the rest of the Pantheon try to keep her drunk and distracted.

I want to say that there’s more going on here, but honestly, it really feels like Sakhmet has nailed down the whole “not caring about anything” schtick. (Artwork and letters by Brandon Graham)

Ultimately I find this issue somewhat disappointing.  I think that Gillen wanted to tell a story about Sakhmet that highlights how she prefers emotional numbness to dealing with any of her personal issues (and also emphasize that all the gods’ approaches to being themselves are radically different but not morally aligned one way or another in a general sense).  Sakhmet does not come across as a person with healthy coping skills (I mean, cannibalism as a diversion from being sober), but her flaws are presented with no more judgment than Amaterasu’s brazen cultural appropriation (Amaterasu actually comes across a lot worse in many ways).  There does seem to be some conversation happening between those two issues particularly (because, y’know, dogs and cats are part of a human-defined binary of animal personalities), but even with that hook Sakhmet’s story is just hard to latch on to.  In the brief moments when we do get to see glimpses of Sakhmet’s past, she seems to reflect on them in an unsentimental manner.  Her trauma is something that she doesn’t want to bother with, and she’s determined that no one else is going to go about trying to pity her either.

The issue ends with one last single page comic drawn by McKelvie that gives us a teaser about the appearance of someone claiming to be Persephone.  We don’t get to see this person, so it’s totally up in the air as to whether it’s supposed to be Laura or not.  I like this little teaser because it’s a nice signal that the series is heading back into major plot moving territory (and we’ll soon be back to McKelvie and Wilson’s regular gorgeous artwork).  It’s very welcome after the Sakhmet issue, which is just hard for me to connect with.  I am going to miss all of the smaller stories though; setting aside my difficulties with Sakhmet, I kind of adore the rest of the issues in this arc (even Woden’s issue; he’s a character I really love to hate).  It’s not that there aren’t more small character moments ahead, but revisiting the issues in this set have given me a better appreciation for them.  It took me a long time to jump into the fourth trade after I finished this one.

This joke really works for me though. (Artwork by Brandon Graham)