Life is busy and there are a lot of comics. We have to decide what to spend money on, of course, with so much to choose from, but even when we do pay up, we don’t always keep up. I have had a stack of The Wicked + The Divine single issues in my office for months, even taking the time to observe the cool covers and talk about the series with other people (prefacing no spoilers). I knew it was a big deal of a series for my interests in comics, not least because it’s a team up between Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie with Matthew Wilson on colors and Clayton Cowles lettering. But, yeah, I was getting left behind. I knew I’d read it eventually and it bothered me that I hadn’t yet.
The first trade volume came out recently, as Vol. 1: “The Faust Act” with the pleasantly low-priced Image trade offer of 10 bucks, but it took visiting a bookstore, not even a comic shop, on a trip, for me to pick it up. My single issues were nearly a thousand miles away, I was stuck in a lot of ice and snow, delaying travel, but it was actually the shop keeper brandishing the volume at me and suggesting it to shame me into saying, “Yes, yes, I must read it”. And so I did. (*Sidenote: let’s observe the important role of retailers here. I actually HAD all the issues and still hadn’t read them until this fine human being personally and emotively demanded that I read the trade. Comics need this kind of vociferous behavior from their adherents).
I thought I’d just read a bit and I read the whole thing. The concept behind the book, that every 90 years a group of gods is reincarnated as young people who only have a life span of 2 years has been highly praised and received a lot of good-natured jealous comments–I mean, it is pretty outrageously interesting. First you have actual gods from mythology which can be researched and aspects of their personalities selected and presented in modern form. Then you have the fact these are irresponsible, hedonistic young people who know they are going to die. It kind of puts everything in a genie bottle and sets up the circumstances for high drama. Under these circumstances, what would young gods who had these kind of power do? But wait, there’s an advising figure who tries to keep them under control, out of the limelight, and certainly tries to keep up good PR. Only for our story, we arrive at the point that same control is breaking down. It’s the ultimate celebrity in public meltdown with even more dire possible consequences. But I don’t believe that even a story with a remarkable premise can keep me reading 5 plus issues without checking my phone.
Trying to analyze the qualities of The Wicked + The Divine is difficult, and I’ve noticed others having a hard time articulating it too. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it displays quality at every turn. McKelvie’s linework is amazing and Wilson’s colors are so well-suited that they are a trademark for the comic. The surge in popularity of McKelvie’s face-on covers is only a small gesture toward the success of the “look” of the comic. McKelvie finds a really helpful balance between presenting glowingly youthful characters and characters with hidden, mysterious aspects, and his presentation of central character Laura convinced me of something I’m rarely convinced of in a comic: that she is an “every girl”. That every one probably does have it in them to want to be a god for 2 years and then die. She does, gradually more than she realizes she will at first. Her journey through all the revelations–remarkable and banal about godly behavior, haunts, and variations in personality and powers, is the reader’s, of course, but what works particularly well is how dangerous it all feels. McKelvie accomplishes a rare magic in facial expressions and body language that makes for dramatic turns and knowing you won’t see them coming keeps you on edge as a reader.
Kieron Gillen’s choice of detail, at times very restrained but always well-chosen is what makes this comic float. It could be an incredibly dense story, that would no doubt be interesting, but it feels like he weeds out the possible conversations to settle on a phrase or two and they are exactly the phrase or two to help you understand Laura better, get an inkling of what people might be planning, or just to keep striking those notes of dissonance between the normal and the divine. What may be bravest in the comic, and what has probably won readers over so completely about it, though, is that Gillen showcases emotion. Not all the time. Not in a way that bogs down the rather quickly-moving plot, but he creates small stages for emotions to play out–particularly in the strangely winning Luci (Lucifer) who’s a little off the rails, but also seems to understand everyone best, and is being set up for a fall (we should’ve seen that coming but I didn’t really since I was too busy watching the emotion). Luci and Laura becoming confidants, and the sympathy that builds up there sets an even bigger stage for the comic as Laura becomes increasingly involved in this pantheon, but I’d also say that without the emotional content, we readers wouldn’t feel the reality of that 2 year lifespan closing in.
I’ll be a literary geek for a moment and say I really appreciate how Gillen chose aspects of gods and even gods for the most part who are less known to Western tradition. That brings in more subtlety, danger, and ambiguity, since there’s no way we “know” them as well as we might feel otherwise. And in the unfamiliar aspect, it makes us question more closely what divinity is and what it means in a modern context. Here, overwhelmingly, it means glamor and the ability to affect large numbers of people, to compel their adoration and emulation of specific qualities. Perhaps even archetypal qualities.
Also, the coda at the beginning of this collected edition is a line from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and the arc is called “The Faust Act”, and by realizing the connection between this quote and the comic, we can appreciate even more fully how great literature spurs on greater art. The frantic, feverish last act of the play is entirely built on that time constraint, and it stands out among major plays for this unusual concoction of tension as Faustus waits through his last hour for his soul to be taken. Many plays have attempted to capture or best that tension—it’s arguable whether any have. That tone, that pace, that dead seriousness is what I do find in The Wicked + The Divine.
Issue #8 of The Wicked + The Divine arrives on February 25th! Not long to wait now.
We’ve heard recently that the second arc will be incorporating guest artists while Gillen and McKelvie return to the much anticipated Phonogram 3. You really can’t complain about getting both Wicked + Divine and Phonogram 3 in the same year.