Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #25”

I’ve begun to notice a pattern in how Gillen and McKelvie tend to structure issues of The Wicked + The Divine.  Gillen has a penchant for relatively long talking heads sequences (especially during arcs like this one where we’re coming down from a lot of major action), but he tends not to write each issue as just one distinct chapter of the ongoing story.  More often, what we get is an extended bit that builds on something that happened previously before shifting to a new scene that’s following a different thread.  In the last issue it was the switch between Laura’s New Year’s Eve bender to her talking with Cassandra and Woden about what the murder machine in Valhalla does.  There was some thematic connection there as the impulsivity Laura displays in threatening Woden is clearly a symptom of her depression, but as a plot point it’s wholly divorced from her dalliances with the more promiscuous members of the Pantheon.

Minerva gets a cover! It’s a good one, and suggests that she’ll be more central to this issue instead of just… being… a… McGuffin. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

We get to see that dynamic repeated here, although in much stronger relief as the majority of the issue focuses on Laura and Cassandra negotiating how to keep Woden in check (spoiler: it mostly revolves around Laura, who breaks all kinds of divinity rules, terrifying Woden to the point that he decides he has no choice but to cooperate; if Woden weren’t such a jerk you’d feel bad for him falling from one coercive relationship into another).  The second part of the issue is significantly shorter, and serves as a lead in to a new revelation and cliffhanger: the Great Darkness is totes for real, and it’s trying to steal Minerva.

The connective tissues between these two scenes relates to Laura’s curiosity about how Baal is so convinced that some parts of what Ananke told the Pantheon weren’t lies.  The whole thing about the Great Darkness, which we’ve heard rumblings of periodically throughout the series, is one of the big question marks of the explanation that Ananke gave Cassandra back in issue 9 about why she exists to guide each successive Pantheon through their two years on Earth.  It was originally implied to be a metaphorical description of the descent of civilization in the absence of divine inspiration (at least, that’s how I read it based on Ananke’s story about the failure of the first successful Pantheon to preserve their legacy), but here we find out that it manifests as a big honking monster–comics!  This is one of those turns in the story that I still find really perplexing because my impression of The Wicked + The Divine has always been a story that’s certainly superhero inflected in terms of tone and trappings, but the conflict was never so externalized as heroes fighting literal monsters.  Ananke’s the apparent villain of the story, but even her motivations, as far as we understand them, are complex.  The whole purpose of this arc is to explore how the Pantheon will operate without Ananke there coercing and manipulating everyone into getting along.  The sudden emergence of a thing that you punch to death as an antagonist feels like a weird turn.

Well then. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Laura says, “Dying is easy compared to what I can do to you.” This is probably some of the most explicit cruciform imagery used in WicDiv, and here it combines with the coloring and the threat to underscore that Laura’s alignment is murky at best. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What doesn’t feel weird is Laura’s continued spiral into self destructive territory.  Most of this issue revels in the fact that Laura’s power as Persephone is weird and terrifying to the rest of the Pantheon (or at least, it’s weird and terrifying to Cassandra and Woden, who think of themselves as the intelligent ones in the lot).  She doesn’t follow the established of divinity in a few major ways: her powers can affect Cassandra, who has total immunity to the rest of the gods’ miracles (presumably because she believes in nothing just that much), Woden can’t figure out how to replicate her powers or defend against them (remember that Woden is the producer god; his specialty is crafting performances for other people), and she was able to transmit the effects of a performance through a digital medium (the reason Pantheon fans are so enthusiastic about going to live performances is there’s no other way to experience the gods’ miracles besides in person).  Also, there was that whole thing with her mimicking Lucifer’s lighter trick way before Ananke even awoke Laura’s divinity, but that’s a thing that Laura wants to keep under wraps for now (the lighter miracle is a fun plot detail because it happened so early in the series before a lot of the god rules had been explicitly established that it’s easy to forget how unique it was).  In the Pantheon Laura is totally anomalous, and the only person who seemed to have any idea about Persephone’s deal is now in a bunch of ragged bloody pieces.

While there’s certainly more of Laura’s depression on display here (in a text exchange with Cassandra she pointedly describes herself as “no person”), what comes more to the forefront in this issue is the fact of how scary she is as Persephone.  Her mode of persuasion with Woden is to drag him into the Underground for an indeterminate amount of time and terrorize him so badly that when we see her step out of the shadows to explain what he’s going to do, Woden is shivering on the ground curled up in the fetal position.  Given that Woden has been calm and collected in the face of other gods who are much more casually violent, his total disarray after an hour or two alone with Persphone points to the completely different level of threat she poses to him.

Look closely and you can see the motion lines around Woden to indicate that he’s trembling. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Other disparate things of note in this issue: Woden suggests to Cassandra that he’s not white (the question of Woden’s true identity will be a minor subplot in this arc), McKelvie draws some of the best “Cassandra is flustered and outraged when people don’t listen to her” panels in the series so far, Baal uses his powers to cook toast (this is an insignificant but adorable character beat), and Minerva holds a totally justifiable grudge against Amaterasu for that time she bounced without Minerva after Ananke murdered the girl’s parents in front of them (I maintain that Amaterasu is a very sweet, very selfish person who has trouble thinking about the effects of her actions beyond herself).  Next time, we’ll get a monster fight, because that’s definitely what the series needs after the recent unpleasantness.

Never change, Cassandra. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #24”

I don’t know how long the Western plot diagram has been a standard part of language arts classes (probably a while), but in case any of my readers aren’t familiar, here’s a brief explanation.  In Western stories, the plot structure typically resembles a two dimensional pyramid; things start slow, and tension continues to ratchet up until the point of climax roughly halfway through, and then the remainder of the story explores the consequences of that central inflection point (typically when you teach the plot diagram, you pair it with a Shakespeare play because the ones taught in high school follow this formula extremely closely).  There are variations on the model depending on who’s writing the story, but these are the broad features.  The phase of the plot just before the climax is called the rising action.

Anyone who’s been paying attention up to this point understands why this matters.  Gillen titled the last story arc, where Persephone makes her big debut and rips up the Pantheon’s status quo, “Rising Action” because it culminates with the series’s primary climax; we’ve had a bit of a break from that with the 1831 and magazine issues, but with #24 it’s time to start unpacking the fallout.  Appropriately, the first panel has the infamous four count in reverse as we begin Laura’s second year entangled with the Pantheon.

Countdown to consequences. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Is it bad if I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Karamo wearing a similar bomber jacket on Queer Eye? (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

This issue is all about Laura and where she is following her cannonball into the bloody revenge pool.  Her outsider status presumably explained why there’s hardly any discussion of her in the magazine issue beyond Baal mentioning that the two of them are dating; we’ve been in suspense about what Laura was thinking when she kliked her fingers and tore Ananke to bits.  I mean, there’s the obvious extreme grief and the need to get revenge for Ananke murdering her family (oh man, that bit where Laura reminds us about her sister, whom I think we only saw in one panel previously in the entire series, just kills me), but we have to see what’s left.  We’re looking down the barrel of Hamlet‘s final act here if the Danish prince hadn’t ended up getting himself and everyone else in the court killed along with Polonius.  Laura was driven by one specific goal in the last arc, which she accomplished, and before that she was driven by a different goal, which she also accomplished.  She’s a character who has gotten everything she wants, and now we get to see Gillen play around with what that will do to her.

What we see here is that Laura’s kind of rudderless three months after her big triumph.  She’s partying with the rest of the Pantheon, although it’s absent the joie de vivre that other more carefree characters exhibit (Amaterasu’s tipsy come-on is pretty adorable, even as it contrasts with Laura still being deep in the ennui).  What comes most strongly to mind for me at this point is the bit early on in the series when Laura discusses her lack of a plan for after she finishes school.  She’s all in on burning out on divinity because she’s also coping with chronic depression; there’s so much trauma packed into Laura’s story from issue #1 going forward that it’s easy to forget she had some issues she was working on before Ananke screwed up her life.

Amaterasu is feeling very invincible thanks to those two great intoxicants: alcohol and youth. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What we specifically see Laura doing in this issue (besides being perpetually on point in her fashion choices) is a form of dissociation.  The popular concept of disassociation involves a person acting without being consciously aware of what they’re doing, but more typically it manifests as either derealization, which is when a person is aware of their actions but feel disconnected from them as though they’re in a dream, or depersonalization, where they stop viewing themselves as a person.  I think there’s a bit of derealization going on with Laura’s actions at the New Year’s party (she’s not at all present in the moment when Amaterasu finds her out on the ledge), but the more obvious manifestation is depersonalization.  Twice in the issue Laura embraces her identity as the Destroyer, each time just before she decides to do something potentially self destructive.  The first time is easy to overlook because divinity grants the gods all kinds of superhuman abilities, but she does hop on a motorcycle and speed off through London without a helmet.  The second time comes at the issue’s conclusion, where she decides that despite Woden’s threat to bring the entire Pantheon down with his evidence that they all conspired to cover up Ananke’s murder she’s going to threaten to kill him.  Laura’s actions betray a sense that she’s completely devalued herself in her decision making.  This goes beyond the typical teenage sense of immortality that’s reasserting itself now that the gods don’t have Ananke hanging their imminent demise over them.

Apparently my criteria for liking a character is snark, a sense of superiority, and having good raised eyebrow game. I think this might be a problem. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In the midst of all this wanton self destruction we have Minerva (some two years into the series, she’s finally displaying a little bit more personality than simply “the sardonic wise kid”) serving as author surrogate to inform us of relationship dynamics like the fact that Baal still isn’t over Inanna (big surprise) and to explicitly point out Laura’s self destructive streak, just in case we couldn’t pick up on it through other things.  It’s nice to see Minerva taking on a distinct role in the story that’s not just “macguffin moppet,” although she leans a little heavily on the wisdom god thing here.  It feels like a believable character beat though, what with Minerva being so young in comparison to everyone else; she’s more likely to fall back on prefabricated roles to model how she should act around all the grown ups (if you can call anyone in the Pantheon a grown up).

The issue ends on a cliffhanger where Cassandra is totally making that face that people on reality television make in response to something that the producers really want to be shocking but it just isn’t.  Laura’s pointing her clicky finger at Woden menacingly with the implication that she might just kill him on a whim, complicating things ever further for everyone in the Pantheon, but the fact that it’s Woden sort of ruins the effect.  I’ve tried to imagine what the reaction to this issue would have been when it first came out, but even with the prospect of waiting a month to find out if Woden’s going to lose his head, I have a hard time seeing anyone really biting their nails about the suspense here.  Oh well, I guess we’ll find out next time (spoiler: Woden totally doesn’t lose his head).

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #23”

I’ve spent months wondering about how I was going to talk about The Wicked + The Divine’s twenty-third issue.  It’s such an unusual artifact set pretty much right in the middle of the series, and it adopts a format that’s at once reminiscent of the backup material found in issues of Watchmen while doing something that I’ve not encountered before in fiction writ large.

The covers for Imperial Phase present the Pantheon at their most collected; each cover will show a god in control of their image backed by a panel depicting one of their core motifs. The first one has Baal looking like he’s in charge now. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The conceit of the issue is that it’s not an issue of a monthly fictional comic but a monthly fan magazine that exists within the WicDiv universe.  This sort of creation of in-universe artifacts isn’t that unusual (again, Alan Moore did it as filler for the letter pages when he was writing Watchmen), but what strikes me as special about it is the fact that Gillen has actually outsourced most of the copywriting of the book to actual journalists (he cheekily inserts himself as the Editor of Pantheon Monthly, which I’m sure some fans somewhere have used as an excuse to create art where he is mercilessly tortured by his own creations as payback while declaring “this could totally happen!”).  The way this narrative sleight of hand is accomplished was through roleplayed interviews between Gillen as each of the subjects and their respective interviewers over instant message with accompanying notes from Gillen about what the gods were doing during each scene.  It’s a really cool way to collaborate with other writers in a way that helps shape the narrative without stifling individual voices, and I’m left curious about the possibilities of this particular style of writing. On the art side of things, we have a couple of pinup style pieces by McKelvie framed as ads for products that Baal and Persephone are selling bookending the issue, and each article is accompanied by two to three illustrations of its subject by Kevin Wada presented as fashion photography.  Anything that might be considered traditional sequential art is limited to two pages at the issue’s end where the public version of Ananke’s death is recapped with panels meant to be still frames from the documentary footage that Beth’s team got during the events of Rising Action and a three panel gag strip of the Pantheon deciding to party after Ananke bites the dust reside.

The interview format of the issue allows it to serve a unique narrative function within the series as a whole.  Coming off of the climax of Rising Action, the Pantheon is now in uncharted territory as it has to navigate its final year without Ananke’s machinations guiding everyone towards whatever her own goals were.  The kids are on their own for the first time, and that new status quo requires a fair bit of set up; instead of jumping right into the next bit of action, issue #23 gives a little bit of a breather and lets the reader know obliquely about how things have changed in the intervening three months.  Besides the expositiony stuff, there’s also a healthy dose of character exploration, although it’s all filtered through the way the gods interact with the public instead of among one another; except for the Morrigan (who, let’s be honest, is always in character), every interview has at least one moment where the writer notices the artificial nature of their subject’s pose.  It’s a well-worn critique that celebrity breeds a level of disingenuity between a person and their fans, but this issue seems to revel in that reality as a core commonality among the members of the Pantheon, who are as dysfunctional in their interactions as ever.

While each god approaches their interview with a different explicitly stated motivation, the common thread among them is an assertion of self and legacy that seems pretty closely tied up with the desperation that likely follows from suddenly being without a mentor.  All the gods are clearly thinking about their impending mortality and what they hope to accomplish in the time they have left; the Morrigan and Amaterasu are a bit more explicit in their wish to leave behind something more than just the memory of them, but even Baal and Woden hint at wanting to have some kind of purpose to their divine tenure (even if in Woden’s case that purpose is just enjoying himself as much as possible).  Lucifer’s interview is the oddball in the group just because of its temporal displacement within the series’ continuity.  In this piece we get a glimpse at what the world was thinking about the Pantheon in its early days before Lucifer blew the big secret about all the miraculous stuff being legitimate.  More intriguing than that bit of early mystique (clearly Lucifer is just on the verge of stealing the spotlight) is the reminder that Lucifer’s take on the godhood deal early on was a lot more cynical than the other public facing Pantheon members.  She’s playing her part as the unrepentant rebel dutifully, but there are hints here and there that she’s not really happy with the turn of events.  All the gods worry on some level that the cost of their fame is probably too high, but aside from characters like Woden and Sakhmet (who pair their coping with an intense amorality) Lucifer is the one who tries to sooth those worries with a hedonistic abandon that clashes so strongly with what she values.

When the issue is over, the strongest sense that we’re supposed to take away is that the gods are determined to do their own thing now that Ananke is dead, and they will very likely make it all worse while they’re trying to figure out what that should look like.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1831”

Despite my usual discipline in waiting patiently for new arcs of The Wicked + The Divine to finish and be collected into trades, I must admit that I simply could not wait for the special issues to get collected.  The plan for these issues, which focus on telling standalone stories featuring members of past Pantheons, is to collect them all into a trade at the series’s conclusion since they’re technically supplemental material; you can read and enjoy the core story of The Wicked + The Divine without ever dipping into the specials.  Still, “technically supplemental” is probably the flimsiest description you could give to a thing, particularly when so much of the joy of WicDiv is in learning about the historic, meta-, and intertextual stuff that Gillen is doing.  The WicDiv universe is extremely similar to our own except for the whole incarnating gods thing, and the series’s underlying premise of divinity being an expressed cipher of contemporary cultural values and priorities creates a pretty rich playground for figuring out what’s going on in past eras.

The 1831 special looks at the final days of a Pantheon built on the foundation of English literary figures including Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet of Ozymandias among lots of other things), Mary Shelley (author of freakin’ Frankenstein), Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, and of course Lord Byron (he got a shout out in issue #2 when Laura meets Cassandra at an art museum in a gallery of portraits of figures from past Pantheons; the Byronic figure is, of course, the 1831 Lucifer).  Two thirds of the Pantheon are already dead, and the remainder have planned a house party to while away their few remaining weeks before their two year timer expires.  Lucifer, who in this incarnation is romantically entangled with a female Inanna (our viewpoint character), wants to meditate on the Pantheon’s mortality by telling horror stories before unveiling his plan to use necromancy to bring the recently deceased Hades back to life.  Also present are Woden, Inanna’s step-sister, and her husband the Morrigan (I think Gillen had some great fun taking several major characters of the present day Pantheon and gender flipping all of them).  This whole setup is broadly speaking modeled on the summer of 1816 when the Shelleys and Clairmont stayed with Byron in Switzerland–the period when Mary conceived the idea for Frankenstein.

I get why you’d put Lucifer on the cover of a special issue; people love Lucifer. I just wish Inanna had gotten spotlighted seeing as this issue is so much about her and Woden. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matthew Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The historical background is useful for understanding the context that Gillen’s playing with in this issue (I wasn’t aware of any of this history when I first read the issue, and it helped immensely knowing this stuff on my third reading).  The pastime of telling ghost stories, the multiple dead children, the sibling jealousy, all of the details of this Pantheon’s interpersonal dynamics are pulled from the lives of the figures they’re paying homage.  One important thing to keep in mind though is that the members of the Pantheon aren’t stand-ins for the actual historical figures; within the world of The Wicked + The Divine the artists whom the Pantheon represent still exist (this is why in the first arc Cassandra can make an offhand joke about Lucifer stopping when she got to her parents’ David Bowie collection as readers who are somewhat familiar with the artist recognize that Lucifer’s design borrows heavily from Bowie’s persona the Thin White Duke); you can imagine that this makes for some weirdly recursive in-universe stuff (I mean, besides the Recurrence) where the events of fifteen years earlier for a different set of famous people play out in an eerily similar way for others.  Even stranger, the events of 1831 take place when Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont were still alive, meaning it’s possible that in the WicDiv universe, they heard about these doppelgangers who resembled themselves and their dead beloveds (well, ex-beloved for Clairmont; she and Byron had a major falling out after they had a daughter together).  I’m not saying I would read that crossover fanfiction, but I would probably read that crossover fanfiction.

Woden and the Morrigan are a total raven power couple. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Anyway, setting all the tangents aside, this issue does a lot of intertextual work with Frankenstein.  Mary Shelley’s novel explores a lot of stuff, from the folly of trying to circumvent God’s natural order to the tragedy of parental abandonment and a lot of other stuff.  Gillen pulls all of that stuff into his little ghost story about ghost stories.  This Lucifer is brazen enough to think he can use his power to reverse death (our first clue that this definitely won’t work out the way he hopes is that Ananke is the one who provides him with the piece of Hades he intends to use in his ritual).  Lucifer sets the stage for the tragedy, but the major action occurs between Inanna and Woden, our stand-ins for Clairmont and Mary Shelley respectively.  Inanna explains in her version of a ghost story (she doubts it qualifies because it ends happily for her), her step-sister and brother-in-law were approached by Ananke and transformed into gods while the three of them were traveling abroad.  Inanna was initially overlooked because she lacked the raw talent of her two companions (Clairmont is historically notable for her close connections with the Shelleys and Byron, but she’s unremarkable in her own right), but then Ananke granted her divinity.

Inanna really undersells the story of how she ascended. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The flip side of Inanna’s story is Woden’s, which directly addresses the grief she feels at her divinity apparently dooming her chances at having healthy children.  Mary Shelley suffered the early deaths of multiple children over the course of her life, and these events were major catalysts for depressive periods in her life.  Woden is similarly focused on her own tragedy, and it colors all of her interactions with her circle of friends; she resents Inanna’s jealousy because she sees the price of divinity as being too high, and she’s alienated from the Morrigan because he doesn’t give full import to what they’ve lost.  Unlike the present-day Woden, this one feels fully sympathetic; she’s certainly detached from her peers, but the source of her detachment isn’t a generalized misanthropy so much as repeated, little acknowledged trauma.

Woden is not playing with you. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While Inanna and Woden exist in tension with one another over their perspectives on divinity, the Morrigan (minorly) and Lucifer are more interested in addressing the problem of imminent death.  With a piece of the newly deceased Hades as a catalyst (delivered by Ananke, which we know means nothing good will come of it), they go about trying to resurrect the dead.  The experiment’s result is a magical version of the famous monster of Frankenstein: a creature that was made from Hades’s body is born, but it doesn’t share his identity.  The creature immediately proceeds to eat the essence of its creators, killing Lucifer and the Morrigan in quick succession (alas, Gillen doesn’t have them die in the same order as their historical counterparts).  Inanna is terrified by the thing, but Woden offers herself up willingly, viewing this creature as the progeny she’s been denied.  Inanna’s the only one who escapes, and in the story’s epilogue she reveals that she’s pregnant with Lucifer’s child and that she killed Woden’s children in the crib as part of her bargain with Ananke to attain divinity.

Of course, no one escapes the Pantheon, so Ananke shows up to execute Inanna.

The creature takes on Woden’s appearance after it absorbs her, and I have so many questions about how it knows what Inanna did. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

So much of this story is built around the desire for children and legacy.  Each of the four gods are grasping at some sort of immortality, although they go about it in extremely different ways.  Lucifer, a most self-obsessed individual, doesn’t care that much about having children himself, but he wants to find a way to cheat death; offspring are no fun if you don’t live to see them carry on.  The Morrigan (who is honestly relatively underdeveloped beyond being a Percy Shelley pastiche) seems most concerned with living on through his work.  Just before he’s eaten by the creature, he misquotes the famous lines from Ozymandias and in the speaking demonstrates the futility of legacy that Shelley’s own poem argues for.  Woden disdains her talents because they don’t serve her desire to have children; the creature offers her one last chance at leaving behind something other than herself.  Inanna’s aims are less far-reaching; she just wants notoriety in her own life, and she’s willing to sabotage the hopes of her closest friends to achieve it.

Some things about this issue that I find surprising after having read it a few times are the way that it succeeds in making a Woden the subject of most genuine sympathy among the characters.  The present-day Woden is a despicable character that is meant to be loathed most of the time while small bits of humanity peak through, but the Regency Woden just doesn’t have that vibe.  She’s certainly scary and imposing in her way (her design evokes the nascent science fiction genre that Mary Shelley ushered in with Frankenstein), but as far as what’s presented in this story, she’s done nothing wrong.  Also, we get a pretty clear picture here that Ananke doesn’t want the gods having children although the reason remains murky.  Carrying over from that, we’re also left with one giant dangling plot thread in the creature itself.  We don’t know anything about its nature, and at the story’s conclusion it wanders off into the wilderness where Inanna at least assumes that it will live out its life.  It’s a weird thing to have happen in a side story, and I am still wondering if the creature will figure in at all in the main series.

Next time we’ll take a look at The Wicked + The Divine #23, which is a very different sort of book.

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.

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)