This is the high concept behind The Wicked + The Divine, the latest Image comic from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson.
Welcome to Tim + Alex Get TWATD. Each set of essays will be broken into two posts, to save our wrists and your eyes. We might be doing close readings of particular scenes or panels, picking out a theme or character that's caught our attention, or just speculating wildly. Spoilers will be everywhere, so if you haven't read the comics yet, avert your eyes or, better yet, grab them and come back later.Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each.
In two years, they'll probably still be doing this. The idiots.
“But not yet.”
You know, given that its very first page is dominated by a skull, and the majority of its cast's lives have a guaranteed expiration date of two years' time, The Wicked + The Divine has actually shown a remarkably light touch when it comes to mortality.
In the opening pages of #1, which take us back to 1923 and the era's own set of deities, we get a preview of the gods' inevitable fate. Eight have already been reduced to the aforementioned skulls, and a couple of pages later, we see the explosive murder-suicide of the remaining four. But their demises don't weigh too heavily on us – they're not characters we've had time to get invested in, despite their wonderful Jazz Age designs – nor, it seems, on their 21st Century counterparts.
Over in 2014, Amaterasu (aka 17-year-old Hazel Greenaway) is asked about her imminent demise by the comic's resident cynic, Cassandra. There is a regretful pause, a moment of wonderfully-drawn sadness in Ammy's big brown eyes, before she pretty much shrugs it off:
There are a few possible reasons for all this:
- They're teenagers. Do you remember being 17? The threat of dying before 20 feels more like a promise. Amaterasu's reaction is pretty much this.
- They're also kind of immortal. After all, that elegant set up makes two promises: You will die. But, in some sense, you'll be back, long after everyone else here is gone. It's just like pop music – I can just about conceive that Prince Rogers Nelson will one day die. But Prince, the artist previously known as an unpronounceable symbol? He's not going anywhere.
- They're too busy making the most of being not-dead. Creation is these gods' main business, both in the artistic being-popstars sense and the procreational one. Based on Luci's accounting in issue #3, pretty much the whole pantheon has touched pelvises. (More on that from Tim in our next set of essays.)
- Simple dramatic license. If The Wicked + The Divine was wall-to-wall moping about the gaping abyss (and not the kind Badb is taking about), it'd be about as much fun as hanging out in a funeral home. Besides, with a promised run of 30-40 issues, the comic has plenty of time to reach that point yet.
It's a performance, and it's the message Baphomet and the Morrigan choose to send to the outside world. So it's probably telling that the sequence ends with three more words, lighting the darkness and breaking the rhythm: “But not yet.”
Won’t Somebody Think of the Grown-Ups?
The Wicked + The Divine is a series with its eye fixed firmly on the young.
Laura, our entry point into the story, is 17. The gods and goddesses are, at most, in their early 20s. Apart from the elderly and possibly immortal Ananke, the only major character that could rent a car in the US is Cassandra, who is old enough to have a Masters degree, but young enough to still be annoyed about her student loans. That said, one group of adults is very conspicuous in their absence – the parents.
Laura’s parents are both seen and heard, and her interactions with them root her as a 'normal' figure caught up in the supernatural events of the Recurrence. In issue #2 we are presented with a portrait of their normality, as the family sits around the television watching Baal’s interview. Laura’s father gently prods at his daughter’s affection for the gods, her mother prevents it escalating beyond good-natured familial banter. In issue #3, we see the consequences of Laura being caught (quite literally) at the Morrigan’s gig, and the ensuing row, again a picture of normal teenage life.
In contrast, we have the parents of the gods. Amaterasu is 17, Lucifer maybe a couple of years older. Minerva is only 12. It’s common knowledge that the gods live for a maximum of two years after they are awoken. Where are their mortal parents, lamenting their childrens’ inevitable early deaths? Or, given that we’re also dealing with pop stars and the modern cults of celebrity, where are the parents desperately trying to edge their way into their child’s spotlight, barely acknowledging their foretold doom? Granted, we’ve only had three issues, and the plot has been moving at a fair tick, but we've already had our attention drawn to the empty seats at the family table.
Lucifer’s parents (or rather the parents of the girl who became Lucifer) are twice referenced. First in Cassandra’s interview, where she conjures a picture of Luci discovering Bowie in her parents’ “embarrassingly retro record collection”, and then again when Luci regales Laura with the tale of her transformation into a god, while her parents “were out at some awful Britpop covers band”. If her parents are at the court hearing in issue #1, they never make their presence known, even when Luci is being tackled by bailiffs. Where are they, and what do they make of their young daughter suddenly declaring herself the Lord of Flies?
Of course, there’s another way to look at this. If anyone would have an absent parent who remains caught in the past, reliving their faded glories, oblivious to the damage their child is causing, it should probably be Lucifer...
The Baphomet Problem
Our gods so far: Luci(fer). A gender-flipped Bowie/Satan figure, dropping acidic soundbites like they were carpet bombs. Love her. Amaterasu. A young, even-more-divine Kate Bush who makes her fans leak from the trousers at gigs. Love her. Sakhmet. S&M-era Rihanna turned literal sex kitten. How could I not love her? The Morrigan. Three-in-one none-more-goth queen. Love her.
And Baphomet. Hmmmmm.
Maybe it's the look. Leather jacket, chains, mirrored aviators, animal skulls... Baphomet is the rare Jamie McKelvie costume design I wouldn't want to cosplay as. Even those exposed abs, against the dirtier crosshatching-in-every-corner world McKelvie and colourist Matt Wilson have conjured up, come off a bit Ken-doll.
Look at the texture of the first two panels below, the visual noise obscuring and framing Baphomet. Then he clicks his fingers, reveals himself – and everything goes a bit shiny.
Or maybe it's that I'm just not a fan of the musical archetypes Baphomet draws from. There's the swagger of a thousand cock-rock frontmen in his hips, some Sisters of Mercy, the hyperbole of early Manics, Nick Cave at his murder-horniest. None of them are really my thing.
Baphomet certainly falls into a character archetype I'm fond of, though: the kind of arrogant male Kieron Gillen writes so well. In his Uncanny X-Men, Namor is Kanye West's Power incarnate (I guess every superhero needs his theme music). Phonogram's David Kohl is a swinging dick of a human being who introduces himself with the Afghan Whigs' Be Sweet.
You get the impression that going to bed with Kohl or Namor, as much as you might regret it the next day, would be worth it. To quote the Atlantean king himself: “Only Namor has the ability to make the Earth move. And he reserves that privilege for one woman at a time.” David Kohl was recently named 'Babe of the Month'. Baphomet, on the other hand, is apparently blessed with a “needle dick”.
And then it struck me. It doesn't actually seem like the comic has much love for Baphomet either. Maybe this is the correct response. After all, he's introduced in a final-page splash – which, in the language of superhero comics (like Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson's last collaboration, Marvel's Young Avengers), tends to mean the reveal of our villain.
Like the real-life Top 40, The Wicked + The Divine is populated by charismatic problematic people. Luci's apparent desire to have sex with underage groupies is quickly forgiven amongst all the crowd-pleasing one liners and the humanising moment of her framing at the end of issue #1.
There's no real attempt to redeem Baphomet. When we first mee him, he's clutching the apparently severed head of a much-anticipated female character. Soon afterwards, he sets fire to a policeman and makes a speedy exit, leaving Laura and the Morrigan to face the consequences.
Given the brilliantly seductive dicks Gillen has written in the past, it's probably worth paying attention to the fact that Baphomet is the first male god we've been introduced to. In fact, he's the first male character in this series to get more than a couple of lines, and not shot/exploded/set on fire, and he's a total prick.
Laura, she's more than a superstar. Let's talk about sex, Badb. They're right and crazy pretentious!
Find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.