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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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.”