Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #3.2: Disco Fudge, Prince of Hearts, SJWarfare

...Belatedly, we return. Only one month after the first half of this edition (and without addressing anything that's in issue #9 – rest easy, spoiler-heads), Tim and I are back with three essays on The Wicked + The Divine.  

We'll be back in 90 days. Well, probably more like 60 now. Who ever said recurrences had to be nice and regular? Oh.

Throwing Shapes in the Church of Dance Even before it was name-checked in Gillen’s writer's notes on the issue, I’d been planning on writing about issue #8 and how it compared to the sixth episode of the first season of the UK sitcom Spaced.

While there have been numerous films, TV shows, books and comics that have captured the magic of music in general, it’s the rare piece of pop culture that manages to get the joys of clubbing right, and so tracking the lines between two that do seems like a natural fit.

While they are born from two distinct scenes, the '90s acid rave/ecstasy boom and the modern day wave of EDM/Molly, the experience has barely changed since the late '90s – and issue #8 even nods towards the former with Dionysus’ “acciiiieeed” smiley face badge. When Spaced first aired, the rave scene was in its dying days, having truly peaked in the early '90s, but it had bent the world of clubbing into a shape that’s still recognisable today.
“Terribly sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt, I just wondered if you two ‘friends’ would like to come join the collective?”
Both now and then, one of the common things that clubbing meant, especially portrayals of clubbing in the media, was drugs (hell, I fell into this very trap above and you probably just nodded along). Trainspotting’s success in 1996 led to a wave of films centred around druggy, rave-filled weekends like Twin Town, Human Traffic and Go, most of which lacked the insight or pathos that Trainspotting was shot through with, while nowadays the likes of Skins, Glue, Misfits and a wealth of MTV shows will happily pump its teen cast full of substances and throw them onto the dancefloor to self-destruct and Learn Life Lessons.
“Don’t pull your post-feminist art school bollocks with me, sunflower, if that’s your real friggin’ name, alright? I work for a living, what do you do?” “I write, actually.” “Oh really? In other words you’re on the dole.”
Both Spaced and The Wicked + The Divine manage to elevate themselves by side-stepping the issue of drugs, instead focusing on the experience which, speaking as someone who doesn’t really dabble with these things, is perfectly potent without giving your brain chemistry a poke. They centre on the dancefloor as a unifying force, something that brings people together even when earlier in the day they’ve been at each other’s throats.

“I’ve Got To Dance! LET’S WEAVE!”
In both, we witness the transition from arrival to participation. In The Wicked + The Divine, it’s the appearance of the eight-panel grid and Laura’s shuddering entry as the beat starts to overlay and a take control, and that sudden moment of clarity at the end. In Spaced, we have two markers. Mike, the least familiar with clubbing, slowly gains more and more accessories as he becomes comfortable, to the point where he is able to lead the dancefloor. Meanwhile, when the characters embrace the music and, more importantly, leave their previous drama and worries behind, a caption flashes up with their new identity. They are rechristened on the dancefloor, transformed into a version of themselves freed from baggage and focused on joy and dance.
“That’s a well-fitted body-warmer, Mike.”
Both pieces also feature someone to guide the main characters into the new experience. In Spaced, it’s Tyres, a drug-fiend bike messenger so in tune with music that he finds beats in ticking clocks, boiling kettles and traffic lights, and who attempts to disappear at the end of the night into a bank of smoke with a “My work here is done.” In The Wicked + The Divine, we have our newest god, Dionysus, the Dancefloor that Walks like a Man, who binds the attendees together in an experience so pure that they don’t actually need music. And while Tyres may have a short attention span and occasionally get stuck at pedestrian crossings, Dionysus no longer sleeps; has a constant club's worth of people inside his head; and, like the other gods, will be dead in less than two years.
“Last night? Last night was an A1, tip top clubbing jam fair; it was a sandwich of fun on Ecstasy bread, all wrapped up in a big bag like disco fudge; in doesn’t get much better than that, I just wish sometimes I could control these FUCKING MOODSWINGS.”
“Last night? Last night was an A1, tip-top clubbing jam fair; it was a sandwich of fun on ecstasy bread, all wrapped up in a big bag like disco fudge; it doesn’t get much better than that. I just wish sometimes I could control these FUCKING MOODSWINGS.”
Sound + Vision
I hadn't fallen for any of The Wicked + The Divine's gods the way the story's fans do – until the introduction of Inanna.

Dressed like he's stepped off the cover of a Prince album, the literal purple rain falling around him, just a touch of androgyny in the way he's drawn, those big purple eyes full of a sympathy and humanity we haven't seen in any of the gods yet – it was love at first page turn.

His relationship with Laura is pretty much the fantasy of being BFFs with Prince, the kind of thing you imagine when you're a teenager and way too deep into your pop idol of choice. (What do you think he's like? Oh, I bet she's always... Smash Hits says their favourite food is...) But skipping straight ahead to that all-access fantasy means we don't get to see why Laura's actually a fan.

We know that she's literally been there (“When Inanna did that whole week in Camden, I was in the front row crying every night”) and got the t-shirt (which, Team WicDiv, please make into a purchasable product ASAP so I can throw money at you). But with other gods, Laura's inner monologue has acted as a quick critique on the kind of pop star they are and the real-ones they're referring to. “I love Baal. That probably says bad things about me” lays out the character in a single caption, and strikes a chord with my own feelings about Kanye.

The closest we get from her is on Inanna's anonymous call: “The voice is what silk wishes it felt like. I feel it undressing me. I like it.” Which, to be fair, is pretty much exactly the way that breathy falsetto on I Wanna Be Your Lover makes me feel after three gin & tonics.

What's interesting about Inanna is that he actually performs this function himself. In a flashback, we see the person he was before his secret origin, dressed in drab colourless clothes that go beyond functional and towards camouflage – “my go-to cosplay was wallpaper,” as Inanna puts it. After his transformation, his clothes are the most attention-grabbing of the whole Pantheon, garish purples and leopard skin. That buttoned-up shirt is ripped open to the navel, showing off his chest hair. Because when you're a god and you're only going to live two years anyway, why the hell not?

Inanna Transformation

It's the most resonant moment in the comic so far, for me. “I can be whoever I want to be. I can be whoever I am.” It could be read as a powerful statement of coming out, but I'm considerably shallower than that. For me, those words are a mission statement for the dancefloor, with got the aforementioned G&Ts inside you and the DJ has just put exactly the right song on. Be who you want. Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.


Talkin' 'Bout My (New Power) Generation

The Wicked + The Divine is most notably About Death, but it’s also about a lot of other things, one of which is music, fandom and the relationship between the art, the artist and the audience.

In issues #6 and 7, we get to explore an aspect to this theme that the first five hadn’t really touched on: the larger institutions of the Pantheon’s fandom, as opposed to the individual relationship that Laura has with the gods. We get to see cons, we get to meet other fans (as opposed to Cassandra, the critic) and we also get the revelation that Luci’s would-be assassins from issue one weren’t Christian fanatics trying to strike down the great adversary, but  fans whose love had been twisted into hate.

While the massive Fantheon (hurrah for portmanteaus!) that forms the centre of #7’s action is intriguing in its own right, especially with that gorgeous floorplan to pick apart, I want to turn the spotlight on the Ragnarock from the previous year we glimpse in flashback in issue#6 , in particular the attitude of David Blake, who is leading the talk we see Laura attend.

If you’re at all plugged into ‘comics culture’, it’s hard to ignore the seismic (and long-overdue) shifts much of it is undergoing. Publishers and audiences are finally coming to terms with the fact that people other than straight white men want to read comics, and that maybe the comics themselves should reflect that.

Video games are undergoing a similar transition, although theirs is far more violent, in every sense of the word. In both subcultures, as more diverse voices demand to be heard, those with a vested interest in hanging onto the past become louder, in what are hopefully the death throes of their grip on their respective industries.

This resistance to change has existed for a long while, and manifests in a wide variety of ways, but we can see many of them in David Blake. He is a gatekeeper, using the knowledge that he has acquired to dismiss those he disagrees with. “You’ve learned so little that our opinion is pretty much void,” he tells Laura when challenged on his assertion that the modern generation doesn’t deserve a Pantheon. His dedication has curdled into ownership; it’s not an uncommon phenomena, but just because you can understand the psychology of it, doesn’t make it right.

There are a lot of similarities between Blake and The Inventor, the first villain faced by Kamala Khan, star of the current Ms Marvel comic, one of the very titles that has got the real-life Blakes so angry. Blake says that “this generation is fundamentally lazy and entitled” and because he will not be part of the new wave of innovation brought about by the Pantheon, think they don’t deserve it.

In issue #10 of Ms Marvel, The Inventor has managed to convince a group of young people that their generation is so toxic that they are only worth to serve as human batteries for his technology. Laura and Kamala are both young women of colour who have taken the step from fandom into active participation (in Kamala’s case, she was a huge fan of superheroes who gained powers and decided to follow their lead) and both strike back against this viewpoint.

Ms Marvel plus Blake

Kamala rallies The Inventor’s prisoners, telling them that “the media hates us because we read on our smartphones. The economists hate us because we trade things instead of buying them … Just because they’re old doesn’t make them right.” Meanwhile, Laura stands up to Blake at the time and goes on to prove him wrong, not only bearing witness to a Pantheon manifesting in England, but becoming deeply entangled with it.

It’s worth noting that gods introduced over the course of the three issues we’re covering are themselves “ascended fanboys” – Inanna was present at Laura and Blake’s argument at the previous Ragnarock, and Dionysus was in the mosh pit at The Morrigan/Baphomet’s tumultuous underground gig. Even Luci was deeply rooted in the musical culture of Britain, even if that was largely down to her parents’ influence. All three of the gods whose lives we have glimpsed pre-awakening have been engaged with music as fans to some extent, and I doubt they have much patience for gatekeepers. They’re here to tear the whole damn doorway down and let everyone in.

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: It'll be June! When the sun is out and the nights are long. Probably another god will be dead. See you there!

You can 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.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #3.1: Eyes, Mascara, A/V

It's 2015! The world is still awful! Tim and I are still writing three essays apiece on The Wicked + The Divine every 90 days. Here's the first set, with the usual mix of puns, chin-stroking, and pushing the blog format to its limits. Nothing has changed. Everything is awesome.

The Eyes Have It

In Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie's first series together, the eyes of each Phonomancer transform when they work their magic, in a way that reflects their personality or what they're summoning. When Penny manipulates others in issue #1 of The Singles Club, for example, her eyes are a sparkling black star-field; when she dances for herself, they light up purest white.

In Gillen's alternate history WWII comic Uber, the super-powered panzermensch shoot glowing orbs of disembowelling energy from their eyes (which, interestingly, are also their exhaust-port-on-the-Death-Star weak spot).

Once again, this motif returns in The Wicked + The Divine. From our very first glimpse of the Pantheon, at Amaterasu's gig in #1, the focus is on her solar-eclipse eyes, framed in a widescreen panel. It's something we see again at the end of the arc, when the Pantheon briefly flip from modern pop stars into ancient warring gods. Luci's sharp blue eyes flip to infernal red as she burns everything around her. When Baal lays the smackdown upon her, lightning leaks from his eyes in a way that is particularly reminiscent of Uber.

Like one of those ridiculous Super-Saiyan hairdos, these effects only switch on when the gods are being godly – when they are performing or fighting or, possibly, just being iconic. Each chat's particular eye effect is showcased on their cover, which presents them in a style halfway between a modern promo poster and a Renaissance religious painting.
WicDiv eyes
The eyes are the centre point of each cover's design, placed in the negative space of the title, with a big old '+' placed dead between the eyes. Most of the character designs similarly point to the eyes – Amaterasu's colourful sunrise eye make-up, ​Tara's block of blue facepaint – or, like Baphomet's mirrored aviators and Minera's Lennon shades, obscure them.

(A quick pause here to note that Woden is the only member of the Pantheon whose eyes are fully hidden, and he's also the only one without his own powers.)

Like the Phonomancers, the designs of each god's eyes and the surrounding area tell us a little about their personality – the Morrigan's eyes remain a dilated pale green in each of her aspects, but her eye make-up switches from the neutral dash of Macha to the sharp angry wedges of Badb to the chaotic asymmetry of Annie. Or they refer back to their mythic origins – Amaterasu's eyes reminding us that she is a sun goddess, or the flat dashes of Baal's pupils recalling those of a goat, one of his common avatars. Or they tell us about the nature of their powers – the star tattooed over Inanna's left eye, and the big white-on-black pupils of his eyes, reflect his constellation-divining abilities.
Dionysus I Don't Get No Sleep

Or, actually, they tend to do all three at once. Look at the star of the most recent issue, Dionysus. His pupils are a dilated until they fill his entire eyes, like someone who has licked a psychoactive toad (at least, based on what The Simpsons has taught me ). All the dancers on his 'floor have the same effect, showing how they're linked together in a single grooving hive mind.

When the comic slips into hallucinatory colours, all of the black ink seems to been absorbed into Dionysus' eyes. It makes sense – he's taking on everyone's burdens so they can have one night's happiness – and it sets up the kicker at the end of the issue, where the curtain pulls back and we see his nightmarishly bloodshot eyes. It's a quick, powerful way of expressing how much of a burden being a god is.

But most of all these eye effects just look incredibly cool. That may be the only explanation you need, but that wouldn't be very us, so instead I'm going to ask: Isn't it a bit strange that characters whose divinity is tied to music have that manifest through their eyes rather than, say, their mouths?

More on that later.

A Guest Post from the Tim of Another Universe
Baphomet Gig Report

Sound + Vision

Music creates a world from sounds,” said Jamie McKelvie in a recent Wondering Sound interview. “Comics create a world from everything but sound, from the absence of sound. We’ve spent our careers trying to do something incredibly difficult and perhaps impossible, trying to translate music into comics.”

That's undeniably true but, given its cast of deified pop stars, The Wicked + The Divine has so far not shown much interest in directly capturing the feel of music on the comics page.

There's a reason for this: being at a Pantheon gig doesn't seem to be the same as listening to music. During the Amaterasu performance which opens the book, Laura tells us “I don't understand a word she's saying. Nobody does.”

By comparison, when we see The Morrigan doing karaoke in #7, the emphasis is very much on the sound: “like meat being peeled from bone”, as Laura puts it. Badb screams the lyrics of a My Chemical Romance song straight at us in bold, scratchy letters.

Issue #8 is where this potentially all falls down. The entire comic moves to an explicit four-on-the-floor beat, and is the most accurate representation of an alive dancefloor I've encountered in any media since The Singles Club.

But what the issue's experimental presentation really takes from rave is the trappings – fluorescent colours, strobing lights, smiley faces, psychoactive drugs. The imagery, not the sound, which is underlined when non-believer Cass shouts at the packed dancefloor: “There's no music! I repeat! No music! What are you all fucking dancing to?!”

Sound + Vision Flip

Or, as Gillen said in an interview with Multiversity Comics: “They’re not even songs. It looks like music to us. It’s an art form all our art evolved from so when they do it you can’t record it.”

There's almost no sound for Team WicDiv to try and capture, and so they play with the other stuff. When we compare Inanna to Prince or Baal to Kanye or whoever, we're not talking about their sound, but their style, on posters and album covers and in music videos. The way they communicate through, and are presented, in the media.

Similarly, Laura's experiences are probably familiar to members of any fandom. Bending the way you dress; finding friends who share your obsessions; idly fantasising about what your favourite would be like as a person; maybe even reshaping the way you think about yourself. These are just as valid and integral a part of being a music fan as the experience of actually listening to the songs but, while they're particularly applicable to pop music, they're certainly not unique to it.

I'm not arguing that this is an abandonment of Gillen & McKelvie's familiar theme, but a broadening.

As Gillen points out, what The Wicked + The Divine's gods do isn't necessarily music specifically but art. You could substitute any art form into The Wicked + The Divine – videogames, ballet, the work of Zinedine Zidane, comic books, whatever – and its portrayal of fandom would still ring true.


Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: Partying like it's 1999, assorted japes.

You can 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.

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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.