The Wicked And The Divine #1, by Freaky Trigger friends and favourites Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, is out this week. There’s going to be a bit of coverage of it here, partly because I interviewed Gillen and McKelvie about it last week for Pitchfork and the full transcript is long and interesting. But mostly because it’s a very good comic, which promises to use pop and pop stardom to tell a story about life and death.
I wanted to have time to write a proper review, but I want to have time for a lot of things, and I don’t always get it. So instead here are twelve excellent things about the Wicked And The Divine #1, arranged to give an illusion of coherence.
THE PREMISE: What first excited me about WicDiv (as the kids might be calling it) was the simple conceit. 12 gods are resurrected on earth every 90 years – this time it’s as pop stars. Fun, high concept. But look at what’s being claimed here: the Gods aren’t coming back to Earth as actors or, god help us, entrepreneurs. They’re pop stars – recognisable modern stars as well as archetypal ones. So the comic makes an argument that pop IS vital in 2014, that pop stars CAN be as vibrant and life-changing as they ever were. As a pop fan, that thrills me.
All the other eleven things include SPOILERS – don’t read the rest of this piece before you’ve read the comic!
THE MAKE-UP SCENE: A first issue is spent setting up what the book’s about, thematically as well as in plot terms. From its very first page, WicDiv is not subtle about this. Protagonist Laura’s self-transformation narrative as she prepares for Amataseru’s gig isn’t exactly subtle either. But let’s take a step back: this is a densely packed debut issue promising gods, stars, and exploding heads. Every page is ruthlessly planned, and it’s taking two very precious pages to show a girl putting on make-up. That’s a statement of emphasis as much as theme.
THE GIG: This first issue is also about closing ideas off (whether permanently or temporarily is something we’ll see later). The first of these is in the Amataseru gig scene, which quickly and explicitly closes down the idea that the Gods’ (or THIS God’s) appeal is in their content: it’s all about her being and projection of that being. For Gods, this is hardly a controversial idea. For pop musicians, it’s a little more interesting: it’s allying the comic – for now – with a vision of pop centred on the star’s presence rather than their content or output. (Except we know content can be important – “will there be any more gospel?”, as the masked figure in the 1920s scene asks)
CASSANDRA: Another thing that’s quickly closed off is the danger of seeing Cassandra – the disbelieving journalist character – as a patsy. Cassandra is wrong. She has to be wrong: we haven’t paid $3.50 for a comic about fake Gods. So the direction of the story is towards viewing her as a chump. Except she’s also a sympathetic character – set up as things stand to be another recurring one, like Laura – so the comic closes this down very quickly by making it clear that a) no, there’s no chance of her being right about the Gods not being Gods, and b) she’s a powerful character anyway, because while she can’t be right about the existence of the Gods, she can highlight problems with how they’re acting. Cassandra’s attack is on Gods who are behaving like tropes: “kids with a Wikipedia’s understanding of myth” – and it’s when that line of enquiry starts that Lucifer’s reaction gets really venomous…
THE COLORING: The art in the interview scene is terrific – the interplay between dialogue, facial expressions, and staging – but Gillen and McKelvie have stressed a lot how much WicDiv is a team effort extending to their colorist (Matt Wilson) and letterer (Clayton Cowles) too. It shows. Look at how Cassandra is lit in serious brown when she’s interviewing Amataseru and Luci, and how that helps emphasise how the panels are arranged – a strip of disbelief cutting across the rest of a double-page spread. (There’s lots more to say about the design and colouring in this thing – this article from Comics Bulletin does a good job)
THE WORSHIPPERS: While we’re on that scene, the creepiest thing in the entire comic is Sakhmet’s wordless, washed-out devotees – whose costuming and body language is subtly leeched of vitality and energy, giving them the impression of drained husks.
THE CUTS: Great pop tends to involve a degree of ruthless editing. One of my favourite bits in the comic is the immediate cut between the climax of the interview scene and its follow-up in the courtroom. A lot of comics might not have resisted the temptation of a breather scene between those – building up tension, or showing more reaction. That isn’t what happens here. The focus at this point is ruthlessly on Luci, and the comic wants to keep that focus. Gillen judges – rightly – that the details of how she gets from the interview room to the courtroom – the processes of the world this is set in – simply do not matter.
THE VIBE: The Wicked And The Divine is a very sharp, modern comic. Is it also a very retro one? The vibe of the first issue is extremely similar to the vibe of the old 1990s Vertigo comics – there’s a satisfying sense of weight and event to the first issue, you can feel the double-sizedness: it feels like reading Invisibles #1 or Preacher #1 did back then. And of course the concept itself is terribly Vertigo-ish – on borrow-a-cup-of-sugar terms with some of Neil Gaiman’s explorations of mythology. This is a Good Thing – strip out the gothickry and the early years of Vertigo were a time of effervescent playfulness, with an alt-and-proud veneer that was itself bang in line with early 90s pop culture.
LAURA’S OPENING LINES: Except hold on there, Dad! “It’s not that I’m afraid my parents wouldn’t approve. I’m afraid they would.” Inasmuch as a 41 year old judging a 38 year old’s insight into the current state of the teenage mind can be useful, this Tumblr moment feels strong and valid – it’s the bit of WicDiv that’s gone round my head most in the days since reading it.
THE LINE OF ATTACK: So take Laura’s lines as an insight – the problem they’re diagnosing isn’t “retro” exactly but a particular problem in current culture, something WicDiv exploits, indulges and attacks all at once. Popular culture has become a trope culture, one where readers, viewers and listeners quickly train themselves to see similarities more than differences. This kind of pattern recognition is an inevitable human trait, and it’s baked into the concept of The Wicked & The Divine, where particular archetypes do recur (which is one of the things that makes it so very 2014, darlings). But look at the two pages with the icons of the Gods – the archetypes recur, but they also change. Things don’t just map out. WicDiv is – no, too early to say at this stage. As a reader and a critic and a pop fan I want WicDiv to be a critique of trope culture as well as a creature of it. And I’m hopeful because…
LUCI: Existing in a culture of similarity-spotting, setting a comic up as one about archetypes, offers absolutely tons of opportunities to wrong-foot the reader, and Issue #1 ends with a doozy. The ending doesn’t just set up a mystery, it offers a revelation too: Lucifer can be surprised. This isn’t a revelation because the comic has misled me. It’s a revelation because the comic has tempted me into misleading myself. The kind of Lucifer I think I know about in the kind of comics I think I’m reading – the Trope Lucifer, if you like – is a kind of master planner archetype, ultimately in control of the situation in a way Luci here really isn’t. (Strike one for Cassandra, as Luci herself has been playing along with that trope too.)
(OK, you could say that Luci doesn’t SEEM to be in control, but at the moment the person the reader trusts in the comic – Laura – thinks she isn’t. And that has to be good enough to me.)
THE CLIFFHANGER: There is one, for starters. OK, you could say there’s a cliffhanger at the end of Young Avengers #1 too, but that’s not a cliffhanger so much as “the last page of a Marvel comic” (trope culture again, dammit). The ending of The Wicked + The Divine one is properly thrill-powered. It wants me and you and the world to speculate about what’s happening and what’s going to happen next. With no particular evidence as yet! But what good is a debut single if it doesn’t leave you wanting more?
How good is The Wicked + The Divine #1? On one level, it’s wonderful, it’s immediately the comic I’m looking forward to most every month. On another, it’s too soon to tell – so much depends on how Gillen, McKelvie & co. handle the material in future. Not so much structurally – these guys can be trusted with structure – but playing with pop archetypes is a fearfully tricky business, especially when the idea is to combine a bunch of star-types and find throughlines between them. If there’s an archetypal line that links Bo Diddley to Kanye West – to use an example Kieron Gillen mentions in interviews – that line wasn’t entirely created by the performers and how they behave: their performance was situated in and responding to a pop culture that’s already drawing lines between (and around) young black men.
Ultimately Gods don’t create pop archetypes, people do, and we create them out of our prejudices and preconceptions – where’s the divide between archetype and stereotype? The Lucifer plot in this issue makes me suspect that question might be central to the comic – or at least, should be one these very smart, highly critical creators will navigate well. But in a clever, literate, high-concept comic about pop archetypes, a Bowie-esque one – albeit brilliantly done – is surely the easiest of the massive tasks Gillen and McKelvie have set themselves. But how good to read something so ambitious and accessible. This is the smash lead-off single: thornier pleasures await.