My Pick Of Feminist Comic Books

Following this list I have written a little about why I wrote it in the first place, and a little about what I mean by “Feminist Booklist”. It’s not likely that everyone will agree on the confines of the term, but I have done what I can within my subjective understanding of it.

There are some things to note about the list itself. Firstly, there are a number of men on this list. On the one hand, there may be too many men on this list. There is any number of reasons for this, but it’s no secret that there is a significant gender disparity amongst comic creators, particularly as you gravitate towards the mainstream. This is hardly limited to the comic book industry, and is something which is improving, as far as I can see. On the other, I’m glad that there are men on this list. Because feminism isn’t “women’s territory”; just like comics, feminism is for everybody.

Secondly, I have limited this to books which I own or buy regularly, either in single issues or trades. There are other books which I have not been able to pick up yet (or haven’t even heard of yet) which most likely deserve to be on this list. If I’m not paying for them, it seems unfair to recommend others should be doing the same. However, one thing that is FREE, that has been recommended to me, is NIMONA by Noelle Stevenson.

Thirdly, the list is divided into two sections, relatively new on-going series and concluded series from the last couple of years. With both lists I have limited myself to relatively new entries. There are many other series that have been going for years or from previous decades, which are equally feminist and equally brilliant, things such as Fables, Sandman or Y: The Last Man. However, the landscape of comics has changed and continues to change rapidly, and I believe is rapidly improving in terms of inclusivity. As such, I think it makes a certain amount of sense to focus on current and modern books, more than the classics. The best way to get into comics is to jump into the conversation happening now.

Also, as with any list of stuff, this is subjective and imperfect and certainly does not include everything it should or could.

On-going titles

Captain Marvel (teen and up)

Captain Marvel #1 Cover

Kelly Sue Deconnick, David Lopez, with Lee Loughridge

The Carol Danvers character was reworked and relaunched in 2012, with a new non-swimsuit costume and a promotion to Captain. Under Kelly Sue’s direction the character has developed a significant and vocal fan base, gathered under the CarolCorps moniker.  Their visibility and inclusivity has done wonders for the comic itself and for the image of Marvel in general. The latest arc has seen Carol take a jaunt into space. Becoming involved in a classic prairie town versus mining company via superhero space opera, Carol had the chance to stare down one of Marvel’s most thoroughly patriarchal a-holes, Emperor J’Son of Spartax with predicable awesomeness.

Morning Glories (late teen and up)

Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma, with Alex Sollazzo, Johnny Lowe

The initial covers for this series did a great job of turning me away without a second glance, but on the insistence of the guy who runs my local comic book shop I read the first two volume, loved it and caught up with the rest of the series. There’s a mostly growing cast (bar a few casualties here and there) of kids of various ethnicities, genders and orientations, playing out an extreme but familiar rendering of the secondary (high-school) experience. Agency plays a huge role in the series, which pits the students of the Morning Glories Academy against their psychotic teachers, and possibly demonic headmaster, as their overbearing authority figures attempt to prepare the students to shape, or control the future. Generally with extreme violence, and/or murder. Possibly some of the kids are magic? Or super-powered? Or something? We don’t know. At times maddeningly mysterious, but always brilliant, Morning Glories is a particular must-read for anyone missing Lost.

Ms. Marvel (suitable for teens and up I think)

G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, with Ian Herring

Announced and launched to enormous, and probably daunting, levels of publicity, to me this is the little book that could. Charting the floundering, awkward first steps of new hero, Kamala Khan, as she assumes the mantel of her hero, Carol Danvers, negotiates teenage life and the strictures of her devout (but not as devout as her brother) Muslim parents. One thing I have loved since I first came across Peter Parker is awkward teenagers with no training being very bad at being superheroes and just about muddling through. We’ve all been there. That Khan is teenage girl and Pakastani-American was an interesting hook, but it is the humour, delight and exuberant energy that the team fill her with that make it such an endearing, enjoyable book.

Lazarus (late teen and up)

Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Santi Arcas, and Eric Trautmann

Set in a dystopian future, ruled by a few tyrannical family dynasties, Lazarus follows the titular heroine as she negotiates a pretty messed up social structure, a maximised conflation of capitalism and fiefdom, and a fractured and often Shakespeareanly homicidal family. I feel I should point out this is possibly the most divisive books on the list. Some people just really, really hate it.

Lumberjanes (all ages book)

Jumberjanes #1 Cover

Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, Shannon Watters

This is another smaller book that has been punching higher than initially imagined. Envisioned as an eight-issue mini-series, it was pushed to a regular ongoing not long after its release. It follows five girls spending the summer at camp, where they are attacked by demonic wolves, explore underground labyrinths and encounter talking, adolescent Yetis. Largely, I have no idea what is happening, but I love the group dynamics, particularly that a group of girls is being portrayed without constantly falling back on melodramatic infighting and discussions about boys. They’re just busy being friends and fighting monsters.

Rat Queens (adult)

Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch

Rat Queens is refreshing take on the fantasy epic, taking all the right queues from dungeon crawlers and RPGs, while carving away all the dead weight that has built up around the genre. In many ways, it is arguably the other branch of the revisionist tree from A Song Of Ice And Fire’s ultra-realistic, low magic take. This is a book filled with spells and orcs, a teaming landscape of monsters and magic. Our heroines are brash, quick to draw steel (or throw fireballs), utter fun, completely different from each other and happy to make their own (quite very stupid) mistakes as much as they please, and consume a substantial amount of drugs in a given story arc. Their town mostly hates them, and you can basically understand the attitude of wondering if they don’t cause more damage than they prevent. The current arc features an extra-dimensional Lovecraftian Squid, so you know I’m completely sold. There’s a TV adaptation on the way as well, so be sure to look out for that.

Red Sonja (late teen and up)

Gail Simone, Walter Geovani

Red Sonja is not meant to be a feminist icon. One look at the steel bikini and you just think that is a certain type of book and it isn’t what you’re looking for. You think that, and then someone hires Gail Simone to write it so you pick up the first one and fifteen issues later you’re still here – or rather, I am. Sonja drinks far too much beer and refuses to bathe, wants sex and is always spoiling for a brawl and through it all Simone presents a captivating argument for Sonja’s personal agency, for equality and the authenticity of diverse representations of femininity. It is an astounding book at times, and contains some powerfully iconoclastic representations of womanhood and warriors.

Saga (adult)

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The main characters, Alana and Marko, come from opposite sides of a Romeo-And-Juliet-styled war between the technological Landfall and the magic wielding Wreath. Rather than follow the ascribed path of desperate and avoidable suicide, they skip out, have a baby and end up on the run from both sides, who want to kill the child in case she becomes a symbol of peace and reconciliation. It’s a family drama, fantasy/space opera filled with tree-space ships, bounty-hunters, truth-seeing cats and TV-headed robots. Heaped with sexual politics, examinations of gender roles and family drama there is a reason why this book on almost every Best Comics list going.

Sex Criminals (adult)

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

This is a book about people for whom time stops when they orgasm. I have no idea how to sell it to you without making it sound weird and ridiculous. It’s such a bittersweet comedy, filled with drama and honesty, but also it’s a crime-caper sort-of. It honestly appraises and lays out the absurdity of sex and relationships. It’s brutal and heart-warming and delightful, and also it’s utterly madcap and ridiculous. I think maybe it’s like the Matrix; I think you need to see it to believe.

The Wicked + The Divine (late teen and up, maybe adult)

The Wicked + The Divine #2 Cover

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson

This is my favourite book. Ever, probably. The series imagines a world where, every ninety years, twelve Gods are reincarnated to live for two years. They’re modelled specifically on pop stars. Following Laura, an English teenager, as she gets swept up in the events surrounding these Gods, it’s a story of mortality and what Godhood and stardom mean. It wrote a lot about the first issue here.

(Please note, creative teams change around, particularly with on-going series. I have tried to give the most current, regular teams as best as I can figure)

Concluded Series

Batwoman (late teen and up)

Greg Rucka (Elegy), J.H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman with Trevor McCarthy

Starting with Rucka’s Batwoman: Elegy and continuing through the 24 issues of Williams and Blackman’s New 52 run, this series presents a complex take on the vigilante superhero. As a character, Kate Kane is notable for her open homosexuality as well as her distance from the Bat-family, despite her prefix and costume. She is an independent actor in Gotham, not reliant on the mechanisms put in place by Batman, and flat out rejects his interference on occasion. The book also focuses on the effect of her vigilantism on her life, friends and family; examining the negotiations we all make between our personal, romantic, and professional lives. Unfortunately the series was marred by editorial interference which ultimately led Williams and Blackman to leave the book when plans to marry Kane to her partner, Maggie Sawyer, were scuppered.

The Fearless Defenders (mid teen and up)

The Fearless Defenders Vol. 1 Cover

Cullen Bunn, Will Sliney

Much like The Movement, which also features on this list and was also cut tragically short, The Fearless Defenders was an example of something new in the sometimes very staid superhero genre. It follows Valkyrie as she negotiates her mission to recreate the Valkyrior from the heroes of Earth. The book features an all-female team, led by Valkyrie and Misty Knight, basically wandering around saving the world from the machinations of an evil sorceress. It features one of my favourite issues of anything in the last few years, where the boyfriends, lovers and partners of the titular heroes sit in an Irish pub in New York and bemoan their exclusion from events, while the women run late battling monsters. Hercules cries misandry, a lot.

Friends With Boys (teens and up)

Faith Erin Hicks

A lot of what this book is summed up in the title, but it’s essentially a coming of story about Maggie, a teenage girl who has lost her mother, whose brothers have become distant and complicated, who doesn’t really have any friends, and who is also haunted by a ghost. Leaving aside the literal ghost, the book is largely concerned with the fraught nature of personal negotiation demanded of teenagers, of bullying and shifting nature of relationships. I finished this book standing at a bus stop near my house because I didn’t want to waste time walking home before I finished it.

I Kill Giants (not quite all ages, but mostly)

Joe Kelly, J. M. Ken Niimura

I can’t even pick this book up without sniffling a little. Have tissues and maybe don’t read on a public bus. It’s about a little girl who fights giants with a huge hammer; it’s about something else entirely. It’d spoil the book to say anything more. I am actually getting emotional just thinking about it.

Locke & Key (adult)

Locke & Key Vol. 1 Cover

Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez

The book follows the continuing horror and tragedy which haunts the Locke family. When their father’s past returns to haunt them, the Locke family face their new home in Lovecraft, teenage drama, murder, homophobic assaults, sexual abuse and a demonically possessed lunatic bent on unleashing a horde of its species on the world. Armed with otherworldly keys, the Locke kids juggle saving the world with the emotional horrors of friendship, dating, growing up and the rapidly approaching Prom Night.

The Movement (late teen and up)

Gail Simone, Freddie Williams II, Carlos M. Mangual, Chris Sotomayor

I’d put good money on The Movement being the most diverse superhero team, certainly from the Big Two (DC and Marvel), in mainstream comics. Featuring women of colour prominently, the characters come in a variety of shapes and ethnicities and orientations, the series takes specific aim at the notion that comic books are wish-fulfillment and escapism for a specific, narrowly-defined audience. Vengeance Moth is rare superhero figure who is a wheelchair user and whose power set does not simply allow her to circumvent it, and is powerful, valuable and possessed of her own self-agency. Virtue, a black teenager, exists as an antithesis to that habitual straight, white male leader figure that pervades comics, and yet her authority is not casually and constantly under question. When it is challenged (usually by the team’s bruiser, Katharsis) her suitability or otherwise is in no sense linked to her gender or age. Mouse, one of the two male characters, presents me with a welcome, much needed figure; a male who is utterly different to the constant stream Superman archetypes; the well-built, charming, tanks of masculinity. Mouse is messy, nervous, bumbling, weird, emotional, and still manages to be heroic. To be reminded, every so often, that you don’t have to be something you are not, and never particularly wanted to be, is both welcome and refreshing. There isn’t even a middle-aged white mentor figure from whom they will inherent their mission upon his tragic, sort-of-their-fault death at the hands of an old enemy. They build their own undertaking and are fully responsible for their own destinies. Riffing off the Occupy movement, the book blends a deeply cynical view of the current political and social structures with a hugely optimistic dream of a potential future.

Pretty Deadly (late teen and up)

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos, with Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles and Sigrid Ellis

For some reason not everyone is into metaphysical western horror-folk stories, but if you like that sort of thing this is definitely a book for you. Deathface Ginny rides to seek out “men who have sinned” and victimise women, while Death himself moves against a group of travellers protecting a young girl who is not supposed to be alive.  Westerns, even in the revisionist cycles, are not known for particularly great examples of female characters, though there are obvious exceptions. DeConnick and Rios create a vital world here, in direct opposition to that masculine narrative of personal and geographical domination.

She-Hulk (teen and up)

Dan Slott, Juan Bobillo, Paul Pelletier, Scott Kolins

In some ways this is the most problematic of my picks here. That said, if we had to exclude problematic materials from our reading I could just set fire to all my stuff now. On the other hand, She-Hulk is very clearly negotiating the concerns of feminism. She was created to operate in direct opposition to the mindless violence of the Hulk, an intelligent and powerful feminine counterpoint to desperate, uncontrolled masculine anger. Her story charts a fraught relationship between her statuesque, imposing and indestructible Hulk-form and the squishy, human vulnerability of Jennifer Walters as much as it does her legal career or superhero brawls in space. Identity, both internal and physical, forms the main theme that runs through the overarching journey.

Trillium (teen and up)

Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia

Visually intriguing and clever, this is a playful love story about a World War I veteran and a space-faring botanist from 3797, who meet when they step through doorways, thousand years and light-years apart. The book plays with the comic book format as well as established and historical preconceptions of gender roles.

The Young Avengers (late teen and up)

Young Avengers #13 Cover

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton

When it comes to superhero books I’ve always been more of a team-book than solo-adventure kind of person. With a large and continually present group you get better dynamics and better leverage for drama, tension and comedy. The line-up includes one of my favourite Marvel couples, Teddy and Billy Kaplan, as well as the ever popular Loki, stuck as a prepubescent child. It also served as my introduction to America Chavez, who likes to punch Loki in the face and is also an inter-dimensional powerhouse. The plot is ostensibly about an invading entity from another dimension who turns the teens’ parents evil and wants to conquer our reality, but mostly it’s about the messy business of being a young adult. Sexual identity and politics plays an important role. Kate Bishop articulates the right of young women to be sexual, and to enjoy sex, rejecting the socially mandated shame that she is supposed to feel for sleeping with Noh-Varr. America Chavez and Loki both give voice to the idea that sexual identity is significantly less stable than we are socialised to believe. Teddy and Billy are just the best, remaining mature and awesome and cute even in the face of personal and relationship meltdown. Also, this book has a lot of Loki being Loki, if all the other stuff hasn’t quite sold you.

Up-Coming Stuff Worth Looking Out For

Angela: Assassin Of Asgard – Kieron Gillen, Marguerite Bennett, Phil Jimenez, Stephanie Hans

Thor and Loki’s sister presumably kills a lot of people/aliens/monsters/stuff.

Thor – Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman

Marvel’s new female Thor takes up the hammer later this month. I’ve written about why I think it’s a good thing here.

Gotham Academy – Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl

Set in GOTHAM, in a school funded by BRUCE WAYNE, filled with oddball, super-something TEENAGERS, there is literally no way anything could ever go wrong in a place like this . . .

Batgirl – Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, Babs Tarr

The series is re-launching to a lot of fanfare, with a redesign described as “hipster” Batgirl and the promise of more fun and less grim. Hopefully the reality will live up to the hype.

Edward Scissorhands – Kate Leth, Drew Rausch

An authorised sequel to the Tim Burton film, set 20 years later. Seems safe in Kate Leth’s hands.

Ody-C – Matt Fraction, Christian Ward

A gender-bent space-opera retelling of the Homeric classic.

Wayward – Jim Zub, Steve Cummings

The first issue just hit the stands and was intriguing enough that I’m in for more. Following an Irish-Japanese teen moving to Tokyo to live with her mother, and also fight monsters, though that wasn’t part of the plan.

Please note, I am terrible judge of what is appropriate. I’m quite liberal because no one ever policed my reading at all and I came out mostly functional, so I tend to think anyone over 14-15 is old enough for just about anything, but I’ve tried to take into account everyone does not see things that way according to definitions I think are generally agreed by people other than me. I’m sure that won’t go wrong (please, please I beg you, check with a responsible retailer before handing any of these to a young person).

If you are new to comics, I’m not going to lie and pretend comic book shops are always a safe space for women, or even newcomers. If you are interested in any of these books and don’t know where to start, this is a handy list of safe-space shops that seems to be well curated. If you find you like these books, Kieron Gillen has provided this pictorial and ridiculous guide to ordering a comic series (creating a pull list). They are also largely available digitally.

I’ve been meaning to do up something like this for the longest time, but I haven’t got around to it because I keep being outraged by other things that demand my attention. Reading two articles the other day though, I decided to knuckle down and get it done. One, from The Mary Sue, articulates some of the issues which serve to keep young girls and women alike away from becoming habitual comic readers. The other is this review of Sin City 2 from the always insightful Vagenda Magazine. Both largely revolve around the sexist, or outright misogynistic, tendencies and physical objectification present in a significant percentage of comic book-related media.

This is a list of comic books that are ostensibly feminist. That is a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I won’t get into the finer points of what feminism is or isn’t, as I’m barely equipped to do so, but there are a few things which bear mentioning. There is a powerfully pervasive cultural perception that feminism is an aggressive, excluding force which seeks to dictate to women how to be women, and to demonise and diminish men. That’s more than just misrepresentation, it is fundamentally nonsense and without substance. Speaking as a man (I said that deliberately – I know my clichés) there is more to the project than simply inverting the beneficiaries of the status quo. Trust me, existing as a dude inside the narrow definition of masculinity that our society promotes is not something I wish for any future boy-children I may have, any more than I want it for me, despite all the privilege we certainly enjoy. Switching the system so that any potential daughters, my sister and friends can reap the benefits of a broken, damaging power structure does nobody any favours; it just shifts the vector of damage. Feminism is about a different approach to the existing framework. The actual feminist project benefits all of us, because it allows a more equal, dynamic and inclusive definition of personal value, and it allows us to set the terms of our engagement ourselves.

These books will not, necessarily, teach you the minute details of Feminism as an ideology. Many of these books, you may be surprised to find, do little to overtly push any imagined, militant FEMINIST AGENDA!!! at all, but simply treat women as equal partners in the events of their story. They are not stories that are trying to tell women and men how they should be; they are stories telling us what we can be, who we are perfectly entitled to be, and that we get to decide what to aim for. That is, to me, the fullest extent of the feminist agenda. It’s a terrifying reality, I know.

Some of these books imagine worlds where it is taken for granted that people are equal, while others are stories which serve to articulate the habitual struggles of women in something like the “real” world. Some of them are just about crazy people in bright costumes punching bad guys in the face and saving the universe. The one thing – maybe the only thing – that they all have in common is that they all respect the personal agency of the characters. The other thing about them is that they are all (subjectively) good in radically different ways. Liking one does not mean you will like another, though it is possible to like all of them.

If you don’t like, or are confused by, the term “feminist” consider it this way, these are comics in which women are presented as more than just background decoration or masturbatory fantasies for a presumed male readership – but also, please stop thinking of feminist as a dirty word. These are stories in which the women are entitled to their own agency and existence. They are stories where men get to be more than some caricature defined by testosterone and barely-contained violence. These are stories about people who have a right to their identities, their space, their own places.

What I really mean by a feminist booklist is that I would be happy to give a copy of any of these books to any person safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t come away feeling diminished or objectified. That they would see images of men who are interested in women for more than sex, who value them as peers and equals, and see that it is okay to expect that in the real world. That there would be images of manhood beyond the narrow definitions provided by mainstream media, allowing them to see men who are something other than sex-hungry engines of brutality. These are books that show you can be value women for anything other than sex without being considered weird, weak or intrinsically damaged. Some of these comics even dare to imagine gender as more than a strict binary system.

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Moon Knight: Agent Of (A Moon) God

When I first heard about Marvel’s re-launch of the Moon Knight solo, I was not immediately frothing at the mouth, given that I was largely unfamiliar with the character. Reading a little closer, I noticed the names attached; Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Shalvey and Bellaire were just coming off a great run on Deadpool’s “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” arc. Shalvey also worked on Venom with Cullen Bunn, which I deeply love. Eisner-award-winning colourist Jordie Bellaire colours about 80% of my favourite books. So Moon Knight’s potential was already looking up. And then I realised I hadn’t read any new Warren Ellis stuff in a good while. I mean, definitely, I had reread FreakAngels earlier in the year because when do I not want to be reading FreakAngels? I just hadn’t read anything fresh off the assembly-line new. Suddenly, there was a little bit of excitement building for the book. It helped that my local comic book shop was doing a signing, just for the added poke in the right direction.

Moon Knight is not a character I had read a lot of. He had popped up in Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, so I had a vague sense of the gist of his backstory; mental health issues, white suit, moon-adjacent, bit punchy, that sort of thing. I have heard him referred to as Marvel’s “Batman” which is true enough, in that he assumes the night-stalking, crime-fighting elements of the Batman motif, while Tony Stark does the “genius, playboy, philanthropist” world saving stuff.  The actual history of Moon Knight and his origins is a little involved, much like any superhero who has been around for a few decades, but basically Mark Spektor, an American veteran turned mercenary, dies in an Egyptian temple and is resurrected by Khonshu, the Moon God, ostensibly as a spirit of vengeance. Spektor manifests secondary personalities, suggested to be related to his service to Khonshu. As Ellis has veteran Marvel reporter Joy Mercado put it in the first issue, “Now, Khonshu, he has four different aspects.  So the mercenary, he comes back to the States, becomes the Moon Knight, and two other people.”

Warren Ellis plays loosely with the material, essentially cutting out the skeleton of the established myth.  If there were one word, in fact, to describe this run, it would be “minimal”. Everything is pared back, reduced to the bare minimum. The backstory exists in hints, some from Spektor, much of it from Mercado and Flint – “L.A. There’s footage of him standing in the middle of Sunset shouting at Wolverine, Spider-Man and Captain America”, “Cut off a guy’s face once”, “One of the first cases we ever worked together was a slasher”. Ellis treats the audience like they are smart enough to figure out who Moon Knight with as little direction as possible. In the first pages, we learn a little of the Khonshu tale, that he’s possibly unstable and definitely dangerous, and that he rocks a spiffy suit. The opening issue actually makes a point to discuss his look, pointing out that the glaring white gear is not particularly circumspect for a night-stalking vigilante. As both Joy and Moon Knight note, he enjoys that his targets see him coming. “Because he’s crazy.”

Given that Moon Knight himself has such a distinctive look, it seems only appropriate that the artwork itself would be so meticulous and engrossing. His runs on Venom and Deadpool certainly showed me that Declan Shalvey does creepy well, but the artwork he’s produced on these six issues of Moon Knight are a level above. Added to that, the scrupulous attention to detail in Jordie Bellaire’s colours and you have a dream-team book. The decision to keep Moon Knight himself uncoloured is inspired, granting a visceral contrast between Moon Knight and the world he stalks through. It is particularly effective when the Moon Knight mask is removed and the “real” face of Spektor sits imposed above the ethereal suit. There is a fantastic moment where Moon Knight enters the den of the murder, you seen a throwing-moon in his hand, and then it is gone with a small, innocuous movement line on the page. Some fourteen panels later, the pay-off comes, when Moon Knight informs the villain, “I killed you two minutes ago. Look down.” You can find the little blade peeking out of the bad guy’s side in two panels before the reveal, not buried by any stretch, but carefully placed within the context of overtly detailed shots examining the broken, ravaged physique of the ex-soldier antagonist.

There are obvious parallels between Spektor and this unnamed ex-SHIELD soldier, who is at least partially a victim of the same systems that left Spektor dying in an Egyptian desert; Moon Knight, although the dialogue hints that he understands the soldier’s plight, does not actually feel any empathy, or sympathy for that matter, with the deranged, abused man – “You prey on innocent traveller’s at night. That’s all I care about.” This is the essential mission statement of Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight. It’s possible to suggest, even probable, that Marc Spektor is not even truly the lead of this book. Ellis’s primary concern throughout is Moon Knight, not as an aspect of the man, but as an agent driving the vehicle of Spektor. His take on the mythos of the character is not that Spektor is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, but rather that Spektor is a remnant haunting the body hijacked by Khonshu’s resurrection, becoming only an aspect of the God; “. . . Whether that be Marc Spektor, Steven Grant and Jake Lockley, or Wolverine, Spider-Man and Captain America . . . your brain has conjured them to explain what has happened to you. You’re not insane. Your brain has been colonized by an ancient consciousness from beyond space-time.”

The second issue, “Sniper”, is where we begin to see that this run is something unexpected. It is also the issue where you begin to feel like Warren Ellis might actually just be trying to slowly destroy Shalvey’s mind. It opens with an eight-panel grid, ending in a headshot. Next page only has seven panels, with another red-splashed kill-shot. Every turn of the page has another victim and one less panel, until there is the one page, one panel, red-splattered, exploding exit wound of the final headshot. It is a testament either to his intention to crush their spirits or to his trust in the team that Warren gives the seven pages which succeed this only one dialogue bubble. Between them, Shalvey and Bellaire are perfectly capable of carrying off the action and the storytelling without the crutch of text boxes everywhere to carry the audience. This is something they return to later in the fifth issue, “Scarlet”, where Moon Knight ascends a building to rescue a young girl. It is an issue essentially devoid of dialogue, bar a couple of key scenes. Most of the issue however, is driven by Moon Knight beating the crap out of people, counting the floors as he climbs. It, again, reinforces the central theme that Moon Knight is the divine vengeance (what the ancient Greeks referred to as nemesis) visited on those who would attack overnight travellers.

The metaphysical framework of any fantastical story tends to attract me; it is part of the reason I respond to the kind of stories of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Hal Duncan so particularly. Moon Knight draws deeply, but sparingly, on its own foundational myths. ”Box”, the third issue is perhaps the most expansive in terms of the mythological basis of Moon Knight as he takes on a band of ghost-punks who have been terrorising a small section of New York. Initially defeated (or rather, battered bloody) by the ghosts, Spektor sits in his home in sullen consultation with his other aspects. The grim, suited, bird-skeleton that represents Khonshu reminds him of the Egyptian fascination with the dead, points him towards artefacts he doesn’t even really remember buying. It is another hint at the lack of agency devolved to Spektor himself, further confirmation that Khonshu, and Moon Knight, have more dominance than might be suspected. Mystically armoured in ancient bones, the ghosts represent significantly less threat. And yet, Ellis doesn’t leave the story at that. Much like the previous issues, the audience are left mulling over the melancholy victimhood of Moon Knight’s antagonists. Certainly, they are rarely sympathetic, but there is some aspect of their story that we empathise with; we are left to contemplate the tragedy of that life, to consider what, if anything he deserves from us. Certainly, Moon Knight does not care. He only came to silence the ghosts, and achieving that, leaves their bones behind. He is, quite frankly, not a heroic character. He is a force, an agent. He does not do the things were necessary expect from our idols. He does not bury the bones, or lament the dead, he does not judge guilt or worth. He does save little girls. He saves them when it is his purpose, when divine laws of natural human interaction has been breached. He is not a crime-fighter, he is the punishment of a wronged God.

Moon Knight #4

The mushroom dreamscape, by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, from Moon Knight #4

My personal favourite issue is the fourth, “Sleep”. Ironically enough, it was probably a nightmare to draw and colour. Just look at that gorgeous monstrosity there. What even? The imagery that Shalvey and Bellaire provide has an epic grandeur to it, matched only by the detail in it. In fact, it is almost as if the detail of the art exists in utter counterpoint to the minimalism of the dialogue. The combination paints a character who is laconic, while emphasising the Holmesian attention to detail in his detective aspect. He is a watcher, an agent of observation, as much as a vehicle of violence and vengeance, if only because he must see where to point himself, before unleashing.

I imagine this is something I’m bringing myself, rather than a direct influence, but this issue seems to be some weird and delightful confluence of two particularly good Irish poems, Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” in particular and the final lines of W.B. Yeats’s “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”. Mahon’s poem, envisioning the neglected, unremembered victims of death-camps and massacres, the abandoned of humanity, is perhaps easily understood within the context of this issue of Moon Knight. That opening line, “Even now there are places were a thought might grow – ” speaks quite directly to the events taking place in Moon Knight. With Yeats’s poem, the stretch is a little further, but consider that half-hopeful begging whisper of:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

It seems almost a counter point to the urgent accusation levelled by Moon Knight, raging, “You’ve been breathing in his dreams.” Certainly, much of this is baggage and iconography I am bringing to the table, but any art is at least half audience participation. There are those who will never be able to think of mushrooms with considering Cordyceps-zombies and the Last Of Us. In a sense, what the issue plucks out of me is what I like best about it. Comics as medium is always working with shorthand, with a range of twenty-pages or so to tell a story, it almost certainly relies on the reader to provide some of the substance; the gross foetor stench of mould or head-ringing dizziness of a head-punch, we do not need every aspect of a scene described, only to have our thoughts directed to it.

Sadly, just this week, “Spectre”, the sixth and final issue of this team’s run on Moon Knight arrived. The series itself will continue with Brian Wood, Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire, and I have every intention of continuing to read it; but that does not mean I do not lament the ending of such an intriguing take on the character. This sixth issue plays quite heavily with the opening of the series. The cover is an inverted reference to the first, depicting the Moon Knight antagonist Spectre. It opens in the alleyway where Moon Knight first takes on the “slasher” case, showing us a different side of the conversation. Following a disgruntled police officer, we see the origins of the opening dialogue which introduced us to Moon Knight, and follow officer Trent as he attempts to usurp Moon Knight’s position as nocturnal protector. It goes about as well as you can expect. It does, however, afford Moon Knight the opportunity to explain the difference between himself and others, those like Spectre who challenge him, those who would take up his position; “Let me tell you a thing about me. People who love me suffer and die. I never want to be loved. That’s why I always win.”

The purpose of this run, it seems to me, is to tell you who Moon Knight is. It is not so much a continuing adventure of, but rather an attempt to create a holotype example of the Moon Knight character and his mythos. It serves as a defining piece of mythology, six vignettes which set out that stall so to speak, giving us glimpses of the wider story, but plucking the most essential parts and reinforcing them, refining the Moon Knight archetype and laying it out for the audience, both new and old. I firmly believe that this is a book which will serve as the creative touchstone for future incarnations of the character, as well as for new readers who come to character. When people ask, who is that guy, people will point to this run for the answer.

Interestingly, not long after the new comic’s release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dropped a “man from Cairo” reference, that has led many to suspect it will be part of the Phase Three releases that lead up to the third Avenger’s film. Given the success of The Guardians Of The Galaxy in its first week, and that a Doctor Strange film is in the works, it does not seem impossible that Marvel could go with Moon Knight at some stage. Although, and I mean this quite sincerely, if the next film announcement from Marvel is not a female-led piece I am likely to lose my patience completely. They have made ten films, with three more in various stages of production, all of which have essentially been headlined by straight white men; it is very much past time to make one with a female in the lead. I still have my hopes pinned on either a Black Widow or Captain Marvel film (or both), but there are plenty of other characters for them to work with. That said, if a Moon Knight picture ever does come to fruition, the Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire run will serve as a great introduction to the character for anyone who (like me) likes to get a little look at the source material before seeing the film.

For anyone else who is also sad to see the team go, there was good news out of the Image Expo a few weeks ago. While they won’t be working on Moon Knight, they will be launching a creator-owned book Injection in 2015. The Moon Knight trade paperback will also be available from all good comic book shops come October, and it will absolutely be getting pride of place in the over-stacked, bulging monstrosity that is my comic’s bookcase.

No More Straight White Men: On THOR, Entitlement, and Representation

It should be no secret that modern media and mainstream entertainment have something of a representation problem. Look at current examples like Ridley Scott’s whitewashing in Exodus, or the worrisome representation of women in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise – reaching its logical but awful conclusion in characters quoting statutory rape defences to absolve problematic relationships. Pull a random film or boxset from my collection and chances are the protagonist will be a heterosexual white man. For someone raised with iconic heroes that ranged from Buffy to Captain Sisko, it seems sometimes unfathomable, the preponderance of the singular physical pattern of the archetypal hero which continues to inundate the entertainment industry.

Of course, society at large has a representation problem, let us be honest; the overspill into the media and entertainment industries is just a wider part of the ongoing cultural discourse. In a particularly Irish context, just this week the UN took the Irish State to task for its attitude towards women. In particular it drew attention to the situation where women made pregnant by rape were “by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more”. The definition of women as vessel is not something unique to our political landscape; it is a widespread cultural problem that manifests in the presentation of women as secondary characters, important for their relationship to the male characters in their lives, rather than as agents in their own stories. These are the unrequited loves, the girlfriends, the kooky best friends, victims, beloved princesses; they are the women in refrigerators. POC characters have, historically, fared no better. Take, for instance, something like Noah, re-imagining one of the great creation myths of western Christianity, a story borrowed wholesale from Middle Eastern culture. Here it is portrayed as a fantasy story, set in unhistorical time, rather than a “realistic” rendering of a folk-tale. As such, it had plenty of scope to play with aspects with the mythology; unfortunately it chose to configure our antediluvian ancestors as totally Anglo-Saxon in appearance. POC characters have no place in the genesis of our culture, even when that culture is actively being borrowed from them.

Korra, protagonist of Nickelodeon’s ‘Legend Of Korra’

That is not to say that there are not numerous companies and creators who are making excellent art with good representation for POC and female characters. Orphan Black’s premise virtually dramatizes the feminist critique of social/religious/corporate control of female bodies and representation. Despite recent award snubs, it seems its popularity has surged in the second season and has been renewed for a third. The Legend Of Korra, the Nickelodeon children’s show, for instance features a main character who is both female and of colour. The fact that it is critically well received and commercially viable is an aspect of the sea change which various aspects of the entertainment industry are slowly starting to accept. This is in stark contrast to the cancellation of Young Justice, on the basis that its growing audience of girls would not buy the available merchandise. The runaway success of both Frozen and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games franchise will undoubtedly contribute to a continuing improvement in female representation.

That is not to say that all entertainment which is disappointing in terms of gender or colour representation is necessarily terrible. Some is excellent; True Detective and Sherlock spring directly to mind. Doctor Who is a particularly good example of the lack of diverse representation. Although the show has gone to some lengths to indicate that neither gender nor colour are fixed concepts in Galifreyan biology, as the Doctor enters a thirteenth incarnation he remains utterly white and male. Obviously Peter Capaldi will make an excellent Doctor, but that doesn’t quite assuage the disappointment that the status quo has not been challenged. That said, the fact of diverse casting does not in and of itself guarantee positive portrayals of those characters. The second and fourth seasons of A Game Of Thrones have shown how easy it can be to make a mess of representation, when the agency of the female characters is downgraded in the name of melodrama and rape becomes an unaddressed shock tactic. Penny Dreadful, a show I still cannot figure out if I like or not, is made up of a cast of characters literally and figuratively haunted by their pasts. All of the main cast have some secret curse, affliction or ghost, and the first 8-episode season has teased out the majority of those mysteries. However, with the character Sembene, the only person of colour in the show, when his past is approached, he responds that he has no story. This could easily be setup for the second season; but it could equally be commentary on the invisibility of POC characters in Victorian literature, their virtual erasure from the history of the time. They are good servants, guides and/or shamans, exotic mysteries, rather than realised individuals. Whatever the intention of the remark, Penny Dreadful will, in its sophomore season, need to make good on the commentary or the mystery inherent in Sembene’s depiction or run the risk of marginalising the only non-white main character they have featured.

Both of the Big Two comic publishers, DC and Marvel, can trace their origins back from the late thirties right through to the 1960s. Given the prevalent cultural climate of these formative decades, it should probably not be a surprise that the characters who emerged from this age are predominantly straight white males. A few women were peppered into the universes, many as love interests, some few as individuals in their own right – Wonder Woman being a particular example. Although later decades brought newer characters and improved diversity, these new entrants rarely immediately achieve the kind of instant recognition of those iconic originators. Batman is instantly recognisable, but I can guarantee that my parents would not recognise either Luke Cage or Captain Marvel. As such, I would suggest that new characters face an utterly uphill battle to claim their readership. Just because something like Gail Simone and Freddie William III’s The Movement has a diverse cast representing disabled, LGBTI and coloured teenagers does not mean that it will be able to tap every aspect of the potential audience. Many people who would be interested in the story of these diverse teenagers in literal battle with vested capitalist, political, and social interests will never hear of this group of heroes, particularly since their story ran for only twelve issues. This is a story competing with three or four Batman titles, a similar number of Superman ones, possibly as many as seven X-Men titles, all of them established and familiar. Anyone who walks into a comic book shop has thousands of trade paperbacks featuring decades of Avengers or Spider-man story arcs to choose from; the twelve issues of The Movement or Bunn and Sliney’s The Fearless Defenders do not have the steam to outpace, or even match, the familiar giants that dominate the shelves. Twelve issues, or two volumes, of these stories are practically invisible beside the wall of continuous history presented by established titles. Many people argue that new superheroes simply have to earn their place in the pantheon, whether they are female or minority characters. This is a kind of Darwinian capitalist essentialism. It is a philosophy that suggests that woman and minorities – and indeed, straight white men – are only as substantial as their bank accounts, and one which favours the inheritors of historically racist and marginalising systems. Adherence to this system presupposes that the playing field is level, rather than infinitely stacked in favour of the straight white male. It imagines that people are buying straight white men because that is all they want, rather than because that is predominantly where the industry has been focusing its attention for decades.

The new THOR (Russell Dauterman)

Marvel have been making inroads for a few years now, attempting to promote new, more varied characters. The recent debut of Kamala Khan, a teenaged Pakistani-American female superhero, under the Ms Marvel legacy has won considerable phrase, particularly since the resulting book as been of such high quality so far. Obviously, I am a fan of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie and it is in no small part to their stellar Young Avengers run, which was particularly concerned with gender and sexuality representations. Captain Marvel’s popularity exploded with her reworking under Kelly Sue DeConnick. Marvel also launched an all-female X-team under the title X-Men, grouping many of the most popular female X-Men into one title, as a sort-of challenge to any preconception that they X-women might in an context be considered supporting characters. Last week, Marvel comics took perhaps it greatest step yet and announced a number of changes to its line, two of which were calculated specifically to address some of the deficit in terms of POC and gender representations. On Tuesday, it was announced that Thor would, from October, be a woman. On Wednesday, they followed with the news that Sam Wilson, currently the Falcon, would be taking up the mantle of Captain America from a depowered, aging Steve Rodgers. Bolstered by the fact that these announcements came on high profile American TV shows, The View and The Colbert Report respectively, certain tracts of the internet subsequently went ballistic. There are many who are delighted. There many who are pleased but will want to see the finished product before passing judgement. And then there are those who are angry. Those who are very, very angry.

Some examples, from Marvel editor Tom Brevoort’s Tumblr, are presented here –

how much money Marvel gets the Pentagon to create ideological propaganda in your comics?

Just because Planet of the Apes is a big hit doesn’t mean you have to make Captain America one.

So you pea brains are Marvel know nothing about the history of slavery, so you have white guilt due to ignorance on the subject, and think a black Captain America will erase the images of the white devil that you’ve been manipulated into believing?

Watch your sales drop, you arrogant fucks! Turning Thor into a woman is the stupidest thing ever! You guys are full yourselves! You guys have made him a woman several times out of continuity, now you want to inside of it. It’s bullshit! BULLSHIT! UP YOURS YOU FAT BASTARDS

Sam Wilson in the first look at the redisigned Capt America costume. (Stuart Immonen)

Given these extreme reactions, it seems prudent to question what changes Marvel announced. They didn’t, for instance, announce the wholesale slaughter of all straight white male characters in their universe. In fact, they are explicitly not killing off either of the current figures helming these titles. The current Thor, it is suggested, will perform some action which will render him unworthy of the hammer Mjolnir. We can infer, perhaps, that he will abandon his name, or be stripped of it, as part of his penance. The new female character who takes up Mjolnir will also assume the title of Thor. Jason Aaron, the current writer of the title, will continue to pen the series. In the Captain America book, Steve Rodgers has been depowered and is aging rapidly. The Falcon, a secondary character in the current ongoing, will assume the mantle of Captain America. Contrary to the impression on the internet, he is neither the first successor to Steve Rodgers, nor even the first black Captain America. Following the admittedly-temporary death of Steve Rodgers in 2007, Bucky Barnes wore the flag-themed costume. Isiah Bradley, introduced in 2003 as a 1940s contemporary of Rodgers, is considered the ‘black Captain America’, a figure largely unheard of outside of Marvel’s African-American community, but an inspiration to modern heroes such as Wilson, Luke Cage and Monica Rambeau. He is representative of the disguised, ignored or forgotten history of black figures, those marginalised by the dominant, white narrative. There is considerable precedence for Wilson to take up the shield in Captain America. As he already functions as supporting character in the ongoing series, providing air support for Rodgers. He is an obvious and natural successor. Again, the current writer, in this case Rick Remender, will continue to script the series. Certainly, these books are unlikely to be fundamentally different in tone after the characters changeover, even if the story beats presented turn in a new direction. Marvel, I would argue, is not looking to revamp the titles themselves, because they are both relatively successful; rather it is a chance, a concerted effort, to make some of the core, established characters of the universe representative of aspects of the audience that have previously been neglected. As I have said, new characters struggle to match the saturation levels of the classic characters. By reconfiguring them, Marvel are hoping to bypass the necessity of popularising new characters, while still capitalising on the decades of backstory already in place.

The cinematic universes of the comic franchises actually present a slightly distorted image of the reality of reading comic book stories. For those who only partake of the films, these stories appear infrequently enough, many months between different aspects like Captain America and the upcoming The Guardians Of The Galaxy, and years between direct sequels, like the various instalments of Nolan’s Batman franchise. The actual comics, however, come out month on month, in some cases shipping twice a month. Particular arcs might last for five or six issues, or for a writer’s entire run, sometimes totally thirty or fifty or over a hundred issues, but the story is always continuous, inhabiting the same universe as those published in the 80s or 90s. Essentially, mainstream comics are mythological soaps, Coronation Street with superpowers. Every so often, upheaval kicks the status quo a little out of place. I’m not sure how many times Thor has died, but at least twice in the last fifteen years. Nothing is permanent in terms of any superhero universe; it is a genre fuelled by reinvention, escalation, upheaval. One legitimate criticism of this act, is that it will not last; Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-man ran for 30-odd issues, and eventually Peter Parker returned. In twenty, or fifty, or a hundred issues, Steve Rodgers may take up the shield again, male Thor might be redeemed, his hammer returned. It is not merely possible, it is likely. That reality does not negate the attempt to try something new, in my opinion. It is always possible that one or both of these changes will hold in the long term, but experience would tell us this is optimistic.

Given then, that male Thor and Steve Rodgers have not been erased, that their return is possible, some would argue inevitable, it is almost doubly difficult to understand the full extent of the bile these announcements have aroused. I think it is fair to say, that if the industry has a representation problem, the fandom has an outrage problem. A certain amount of this is bleed-through from an internet culture which considers typing in capital letters and hyperbolic misrepresentation the highest form of discourse. It is borne, very clearly, of western educational systems which privilege test-scores over and above instilling comprehension skills or any form of critical thinking. It is an issue with those aforementioned inherent (and inherited) systems of entitlement. Certain elements of the fandom presume that consumption is the same as ownership. This is a particular form of fan entitlement that leaves some confused and even enraged when the corporate or artist decision-making process no longer lines up with their own reality. Marvel, in this instance, own the content; what they do with it is essentially their business. Criticism is both allowed and necessary; whether it is directed at a perceived deficiency in the materials or at changes to accommodate those previously neglected by the status quo constructive, critical discourse is essential to the survival of any medium. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns, but both these announcements have garnered an incredible level of outraged warbling misogyny and racism. Marvel is not making a good business decision, capitalising on neglected elements of the market, according to this ideology; it is not improving disproportionate representation; it is pandering to a PC agenda which seeks to disenfranchise straight white men, to erase our idols. So preciously held is our privilege, some of us cannot tolerate even the slightest encroachment into what was once perceived as white/male territory, when in truth it is at best public space, and in actuality, the intellectual property of a private corporate body. I do not own Thor, any more than manhood in general does. In very real terms there is no more about the God of Thunder that is inherently male than there is anything intrinsically white about Captain America. There is nothing to prevent me, as a straight white man, from identifying with female or coloured characters. Any arguments to the contrary is, without doubt, nothing but thinly veiled racism or misogyny.

No one is obliged to be thrilled by these announcements. No one is obliged to buy these comics upon their release, but few to none of the arguments against them have any real weight, particularly those which suggest that this is some kind of attack on straight white men. Tom Brevoort, editor at Marvel, responding to a disgruntled reader, said it best –

I’m sorry that there are no longer any white male heroes in comics that you can relate to.

The Wicked + The Divine #1

It seems almost inspired that the first comic book I sit down to talk about (discounting me ranting excessively at friends) should be The Wicked + The Divine, given that I feel like I’ve

Luci Cover, The Wicked + The Divine #1, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson

been waiting a lifetime for its arrival. That’s not even a slightly passive aggressive reference to Gillen and McKelvie‘s long running sales drive; genuinely, there is a very real sense in which my literary, cultural and educational trajectory led inevitably towards loving this book. There is a twelve year old version of me who happily listened to B*Witched and The Corrs while reading The Odyssey and found nothing incongruous in that. While my taste in music has shifted to more angry rock vibe, my mythological proclivities have only deepened. Gods were my superheroes before Batman or Spiderman ever impinged upon my consciousness, stories of Cuchulainn and Finn, Maeve and the Morrigan (who will feature in future The Wicked + The Divine issues) were bedtime fare, along with clever foxes and Christmas robins. Later, came the Greeks and the Norse. Much, much later, about the time I turned 6 or 7, I first met the modern American Gods, the heroes of the DC and Marvel pantheons. These, and other popular modern franchises, like Star Wars, Transformers, Harry Potter most likely fulfil some of the same cultural necessities that the heroic legends did; enforcing, resisting, conforming, disturbing, rewriting, breaching and mending the contemporary cultural identity in a constant slew of back and forth as the mass seethes over interpretation of the symbolic meaning.

If you don’t know what I mean, ask two different people what Superman means. Any answer from “a symbol of freedom, truth and justice” to “the fetish of white-male-saviour privilege wrapped up in dangerously imperialist ideology” to “an expression of America’s immigrant-hero story, celebrating a nation built by the other” will come up, and textually the evidence exists to support any of them. (Side note: I dislike Superman. More on that some other time.) Mythologies are not meant to be facts, they are constantly changing, being made to represent who we are, wish to be, are glad we are not; they are the story of us, socially and culturally, as much as individually. This is the mechanism by which Battlestar Galactica becomes a meditation on post-9/11 America, or Captain America: Winter Soldier on the surveillance culture which congealed in its wake. We don’t agree, as individuals, as a society; common reference points, symbolic figures, reimagined familiar stories give us the tools to frame debate, dissent, acceptance.

In The Wicked + The Divine, Gillen and McKelvie take a handful of these ancient mythological figures and give them a contemporary rework. In one sense, these are not these figures as we know them; Gillen has brought his own unique rule-set and vision to the story, which will inform and frame how they are characterised, as much as our contemporary expectations of divinity and religion will inform our reception of them. In another sense, we cannot help but be aware of aspects of their natures. From the moment Luci – Lucifer to you and me – shows up, we cannot help hear Admiral Akbar proclaiming, “It’s a trap!” Obviously, we must suspect something of Luci. How could we not? Our theology, our culture, our folklore has spent centuries writing her as our antagonist, our seducer, our betrayer. Certainly, this is territory which Gillen has explored before with Kid Loki in the Marvel universe, examining the degree to which a character can rebel against the strictures of their story. But then, Lucifer is all about rebellion, and I have this sneaking suspicion that Kieron might, quite knowingly, be of the Miltonian “Devil’s party” himself.

In the framework of The Wicked + The Divine, the Gods are configured like music-stars. It’s not much of stretch; It is the figurative language most often associated with popular musicians. They are encoded as “rock gods”, “teen idols” and the cult of personality which surrounds many is nothing short of fervent. Culturally, we are all aware of concepts such as Beatle Mania, or the more modern (possibly less comprehensible) Bieber Fever. Gillen and McKelvie, in perhaps the most Gillen and McKelvie move yet, have simply danced happily out of the figurative and made the concept literal. These Gods are stars; they are the fullest, most drastic realisation of the concept of spiritual revelation through music. “It’s not mass . . . It’s what masses aspire to be.” This is, perhaps, the crux of the idea presented by The Wicked + The Divine, an idea which pervades modern culture; that organised religious expression is essentially jaded, rote and empty, while music fandom garners exactly the kind of zealous devotion which mythological divinities always seem to desire and enjoy; the status, the awe, the unabashed love. Our churches are empty, while every night the young are bowing, screaming and crying in awe to their chosen idols. Where do you think the Gods returned would go?

If this is the first “twist” in the mythology which The Wicked + The Divine presents, it is one deeply grounded in an intriguing sense of rationality. The other core concept of the rule-set we are presented with is that they return only for two years, every ninety years. These Gods live mayfly eternities, brief, bright gasps stuttering through forever. And that too, makes a tragic kind of sense; certainly these are not one hit wonders, these Gods, but popular music is fickle, more in flux than even our cultural mythologies, this year’s rising star can quickly become next year’s burnt-out nobody. Some, the lucky few, transcend. Consider the cult of personality that surrounds Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Somewhere around the release of Bleach in 1989, Nirvana started to become mainstream popular, in 1994 Cobain died. That is quite a brief window of popularity in terms of a human life, albeit one cut short. Yet, only last year I overheard a fresh-face little sprite of a thing telling his friend how he liked Nirvana before they were cool. I was nine when he died, and I can’t imagine that this kid could possibly have been born prior to their breakout. For this guy though, Nirvana began the moment he discovered them. The legend revives, begins again. Right here, I could easily launch into another few hundred words about watching the Nirvana Hall of Fall performances, particularly Joan Jett’s. Following the conceit pro-offered by The Wicked + The Divine, it’s like watching Athena pick up Mjolnir and dive headlong into a band of Frost-giants. It’s epic, awesome and ultimately so completely right I almost can’t believe I never thought of it beforehand. This St. Vincent rendition of Lithium is actually my favourite. I’m not going to get (any further) side-tracked, but that rush of giddy excitement I get just thinking about a four-song resurrection of Nirvana, goes just some way to illustrating the power musicians hold over us.

The story of The Wicked + The Divine begins with glimpses of the previous incarnation as it comes to a close. Well, actually, it begins with a Zodiac-esque wheel and a massive skull (which McKelvie has gone to a lot of trouble gorgeously detailing) – it is a hell of a subtle opening. I’m not sure, but this book might be about mortality or something. As the viewpoint pulls outward, the skull becomes one of a number, one for each of the already fallen gods. The remaining incarnations drop cryptic, tantalising hints about what might be going on, and ultimately either decide or begrudgingly admit it’s time to move on. With clicking fingers and a flash of light, they’re gone and we’re hurtling into the contemporary. We’re introduced to Laura, the human protagonist, heading out to a gig. There is the suggestion that Amaterasu is her favourite of the resurgent gods, as well as that she has seen several others. This is a new but escalating movement. McKelvie’s art is glorious as he gives us Laura, standing in a mirror, imagining herself as a God, delighting in her look for just a moment before she fails in the act of sustaining her own self-image. It’s that crestfallen look at the bottom of the page that sells the character; that just seventeen look of just losing your self-belief the instant you’ve caught it; the floor collapsing out from under you, just as you finally get to that place you wanted to be.

If Laura represents the fan/disciple, then it seems utterly – even joyfully – obvious that Cassandra’s disbeliever should be cast as an interviewer, a cynical, jaded industry-insider, bored and slightly annoyed at the piece of theatre being acted out here. Lucifer (of all people) even calls her out, asking if “Cassandra” is her real name. You can see Gillen is having fun, teasing us with every step of the way. We’re introduced to three of the Gods in this issue; first Amaterasu, who we see in performance and later being interviewed by Cassandra. Then the Bowie-inspired Lucifer, who is waiting for Laura when she wakes up after fainting at the climax of the Amaterasu concert, and who is just so fun to read. We also get a look at Sakhmet, an Egyptian cat God, who McKelvie has drawn very much after the style of Rihanna. She is, according to the creators, a hybridised version of Rihanna and Kieron Gillen’s cat. I know precisely nothing about Amaterasu, and remember very little about Sakhmet, bar she featured in an episode of Stargate SG-1, and some vague details of a story where she butchers a whole lot of people, only stopping when she drinks red-dyed beer and falls asleep, so I imagine that’ll be interesting. Lucifer, as I’ve said, we are intimately familiar with. Clearly, I think she’s up to something with Laura, and although we can’t be fully sure about exactly what it is just yet, there’s a fairly Faustian bargain floating just over the horizon. That’s the implicit logic of the character. Did I mention that Laura literally stood in front of a mirror and thought about wanting to be a God? Not that those two sentences are related or anything. Dot dot dot. Wink.

The direction of the book changes suddenly when two men on an opposite building open fire on the Gods and their humans. In the hail of bullets and intricately rendered shards of glass, Luci goes on the offensive, despite the protestations of Amaterasu. With a Rolling Stones quip and a click of her fingers, she explodes the men in fireworks-flash of violence. This is probably the strongest stuff I’ve ever seen McKelvie do. It’s the detail of it; whether it’s the shards of glass, or Luci’s face while bullets impacts on nothing in front of her, the awe/terror on Cassandra’s, or the hint of a crucifix beneath the exploding head of a gunman, it’s sublimely done. This scene also delivers the epic comeback, from Luci to Cassandra, with a horrified Amaterasu in the background, “Why would we be so coy with the miracles, Cassandra? . . . Maybe we didn’t want to scare the shit out of you.” What follows is possibly the logical extension of her actions, but Luci seems to relish it. Standing in the dock, just daring a judge to declare her divine, she’s in her element. In fact, right up until the judge explodes, seemly because of her, you can be pretty sure she’s about to walk away from it. The judge’s death introduces a new aspect, a conspiracy of sorts. Laura doesn’t believe that Luci did murder the judge, and neither do I, but if in twenty, or fifty issues time, after revelations and seeming acquittals and acres of proof of her innocence, if after all of that, it turns out that Luci killed the judge, I’m pretty much not going to be surprised. It’s literally impossible to trust a character called Lucifer; I imagine that’s the point, to be honest.

So that’s The Wicked + The Divine #1, and I’ve never read anything like it. The closest thing that springs to mind is Hal Duncan’s The Book of All Hours, a grungier vision of Gods and apocalyptic war, but fused with a similar mythological imperative. The soundtrack for The Book of All Hours would probably be prog-rock and heavy metal, against the pop stars of The Wicked + The Divine, but the real difference is probably the colour. The Book of All Hours is rendered in greyscale, it’s all nightscapes and wastelands and Matthew Wilson has made The Wicked + The Divine a riot of colour. It exudes brightness and light. The concert is a wash of light against the backdrop of a crowd in shadow, but even there picked out in shades and hues of colour. It is a rainbow palette that is the perfect visual pitch for the story of pop-music Gods. These aren’t shadow-haunting figments on the fringes of the human narrative, entering the story here and there to nudge their pieces this way or that; they’re on the stage, proclaiming their gospel. They are doing it in the daylight or under the spotlight; it’s public, flashy and obvious.

I could read this book forever, just stare at it for hours. I’ve read it at least three times, just because, and a couple more times while writing this. I’m sold – hell, I was sold before I’d ever seen a preview, but the reality has met expectation and it has been quite amicable. I want the second issue, I want the trade and I am deeply envious of some future me who has a whole section of a bookcase just dedicated it, who can mull over the entire run again, and again, and again, restarting the magic with the simple act of picking up that first issue and turning the page for the hundredth time. That phrase the old lady says, that’s going to be not just the motto of these Gods, but of my relationship with the book itself – “Once again, we return.”