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
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.”