Friday, 20 June 2014

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #1: "People We Want"

Image's The Wicked + The Divine #1 landed this Wednesday, bursting with the promise of being my new favourite comic. It's too early to say that yet and, besides, reviewing single issues of a comic is a bit of a vulgar business. So let's get our essay on.

(Spoilers follow, both visual and textual.)

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Let's kick off this two-part blog with a big old declaration of bias:

Jamie McKelvie & Kieron Gillen together make up just about the only fandom that I'd identify as part of. Their first comic together, 2006's Phonogram, introduced me to a whole host of ideas – formalism, poptimism, Kenickie – which make up a not-inconsiderable chunk of who I am today, and not just why but the way I'm writing this blog.

Their work is the exception to the rule that I don't buy comics monthly, and certainly not as print issues – I'm writing this having read a digital copy of issue one, knowing there's a pre-ordered copy waiting for me in my local comic shop. Their Thought Bubble DJ sets drag me halfway up the country on an annual pilgrimage of drinking, dancing, and ill-advised behaviour. I'm pretty sure Drunk Alex has tried to make out with at least one of them.

I am a complete fanboy and frankly, my opinion on any new comic they put out is not to be trusted.

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So why the hell am I telling you this? Because it's one half of what The Wicked + The Divine is about. It's a story about the relationship between creator and consumer, centering around an excellent high concept: once each century, twelve gods reincarnate on earth. In human bodies. As pop stars.

The story is already in motion when we join it. The gods have been manifest for a while – or at least, based on the three blanks in the chapter's introductory Jonathan Hickman-esque diagram, nine of them are. The public are aware of their apparent divinity and are reacting in various ways, ranging from utter devotion to the application of semi-automatic weaponry.

This is a narrative-driven comic – exposition and explosions, a couple of mysteries, a cliffhanger to close – in a way Phonogram never was. My first impression was that the issue flies past too quickly, despite the doubled page count, but it actually manages to seamlessly introduce the concept and establish an incredibly broad cast across two distinct time periods without ever having to stop the story to make time for introductions.

So let's do some introductions:

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So far, it appears that The Wicked + The Divine belongs to Laura, our viewpoint character. For now, she's pretty much just a Fan, with the suggestion that she's trying to escape something in her own personality through her relationship with music.

Amaterasu is the first of the gods we see, mixing Florence & The Machine and Kate Bush with an added splash of Bolan glam, some openly mystical iconography and eyes that (in a classic McKelvie/Gillen motif) turn into tiny eclipses when she's in full performance-god mode.

Luci(fer) is the first god we actually meet. She's an androgynous Bowie-esque retro revivalist, referencing the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Philip Larkin, decked out with a white suit and a La Roux quiff. Luci probably gets the most development of any character in the issue. She's introduced as something of a standard-issue Warren Ellis Female – sharp tongued, fearsome and permanently smoking – but towards the end of the issue that trope gets exploded, fairly literally, and again we get a glimpse of the young woman she is underneath.

If Luci and Ameratsu were real pop stars, though, I suspect they wouldn't be part of my pantheon. The god I could imagine tributes to on an alternate-universe version of this blog is also the one we see least of: Sekhmet, Egyptian cat goddess by way of Rihanna.

It's the most striking and direct visual resemblance to an actual celebrity in the comic. More specifically, though, Sekhmet embodies a particular side of Rihanna: the pelvic thrust of S&M, the stamina-and-virility-challenging super-dominatrix of Rude Boy. She's all that good stuff stripped back to pure animal form, draped over two groupies (one of each sex, obv), uninhibited in the most literal sense, chasing red dots across the furniture like an actual cat.

Then there's Cassandra, a journalist and non-believer who probably deserves her own essay. For now, let's just say acts as the voice of scepticism. 

(Something you might have noticed – that was a lot of 'she's. Of the (by my count) ten potentially recurring characters, just two are boys. If that doesn't sound too important to you, well, you're probably not a regular comics reader.)

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Cassandra tries to ground Amaterasu by reminding her she's just "a seventeen-year-old from Exeter". It's simultaneously a paean to the transformative power of pop and a suggestion that maybe she's just playing the same game as Laura. Less Amaterasu, basically, and more amateur.

She points to Sekhmet, saying it's not "a dignified way for a woman to behave". You've probably heard someone say a similar thing about Rihanna or one of the other pop stars in Sekhmet's DNA, and it raises a question of control and choice. Would whoever Sekhmet was before have chosen to become a cat sex god? How much of Rihanna's sexualised presentation is self-determined?

For a comic which I said goes by far too quickly, it manages to pack in a remarkable amount of questions about the creation and consumption of pop creation, both the specifics and the universal. Here's one more question: how much am I extrapolating?

Look, I told you I wasn't to be trusted. The Wicked + The Divine feels like a comic that was made for me, from concept to execution to the fact that, based on the caption box and the look of the houses, Laura lives a ten-minute walk from where I'm currently sat.

There's a scene early in the issue where Laura attends an Amaterasu gig. The star-god scans the audience, and meets Laura's eyes. You can read in her wonderfully-rendered expression what Laura's thinking: some variation of 'she knows me'. 

"It's so seductive when she understands", to steal a Kenickie lyric. But it's more than that. The art responds. Ameratsu extends a hand, in a gesture I last saw on the poster of Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam that hung on the wall of my student flat, next to a McKelvie print.

What makes Laura different, so that she is the one picked out? Internally, we don't know yet. But externally, I think it's that, unlike the other girls at the gig cosplaying as Amaterasu, unlike the one passing out to her left, Laura's makeup is a reaction to the style of her hero, not a straight lift. It's a work of criticism.

You can maybe see why I like her.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.