By Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie & Matthew Wilson
By its nature, The Wicked + The Divine has been about youth since Day 1. In the world of the series, every 40 years a dozen deities are reincarnated, invested with enormous power and entrusted with the task of nudging human culture forward in opposition to The Great Darkness. Their light burns bright, yet also burns quickly; once they receive their divinity, none of them live longer than two years. This rapid confrontation with mortality is what sets The Wicked + The Divine apart from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s previous youth soaked thrill ride, Young Avengers. In place of Young Avengers’ life-affirming focus on growth, The Wicked + The Divine gazes straight into the abyss of mortality. However, whenever a writer chooses to contemplate youth, they are almost always led to a conflict of generations. This is true of The Wicked + The Divine as well, especially in the excellent recent arc, Rising Action.
#22 brought Rising Action to a suitably dynamic conclusion. While the series has had its share of fast-paced action sequences, this arc has been the one, so far, which most confirms to the standard shape of a thriller. Set over the course of a single day, Rising Action featured plot reversals, revelations and the return of character thought dead. These developments cast fresh scrutiny on the elderly, seeming immortal caretaker of the Pantheon, Ananke. Ananke has lived for millennia, charged with awaking and shepherding each new generation of gods. She shares in neither their glories nor their fates. Instead she goes on living, decade to decade, era to era, as each new Pantheon rises and falls. Her curse is always to be surrounded by the latest crop of bright, young things. Placed in her shoes, the reader can easily imagine agreeing with her defiant statement “Hell is you children forever!”
Ananke has an air of been there, done that which contrasts with the often headstrong devil-may-care recklessness of her young charges. She has always presented an imperative manner, coupled with a cold disposition. Despite this, however, the reader has tended to trust her, assuming that with age comes experience. Rising Action has spent much of its time sweeping away such assumptions, revealing how Ananke willfully murdered three members of the current Pantheon. She also killed the family of Persephone, in order to cover her, Ananke’s, tracks. As #22 opens, Ananke has a fourth god, Minerva, tied to a sinister machine, while Ananke stands over her with a knife. It would seem the moment has arrived, in classic pop music style, for the young to toss off the shackles of their elders.
Or is it? What is so fascinating about this issue is how Gillen refuses any easy answers. Ananke talks a lot about something called The Great Darkness, but is it simply her paranoia? A nightmare figure to keep the kids in line? Or is there truth to her prattling? When confronted by the Pantheon, she claims, like her Greek Goddess namesake, she has acted out of “necessity”, keeping her eye on the larger purpose while the others waste their precious time with “the games and the sex.” Bitter words of the old? Perhaps. Bound up with her defense of necessity is a lack of any empathy. She has no kind words of sympathy for Persephone concerning her lost family. Ananke sounds as though she never gave them a second thought. Is that alone evidence of her deprived nature? Is she chasing her own depraved “games”?
At the same time, the gods are not depicted as uniformly righteous. The issue presents Persephone with a choice about Ananke. The Pantheon debates the matter amongst themselves, each side given a fair hearing. Artist McKelvie does some stellar character work in this sequence, conveying all of the pain and frustration each individual, Ananke included, is experiencing. Watching Persephone’s expression shift from fear to sorrow to defiance as she grapples with the situation is the most heartrending experience in comics this past week.
McKelvie’s work throughout the issue is outstanding, even by his typical standards. He starts off with a two page spread depicting the gods fighting before Valhalla. The composition is dominated by two large figures, a tentacle based creature and a Voltron-esque armored warrior. As impressive as this pair is, the reader is further rewarded by studying the details which make up the sprawling conflict. All of this is made more vibrant by Matthew Wilson’s lively colors. The page is full of glowing hues which carry over the club aesthetic that has been prominent throughout the series. All Pantheons are tied to the popular culture of their day and through their art McKelvie and Wilson make clear how this Pantheon is deeply rooted in the trends of the 21st Century. At the same time, they craft dynamic, highly-charged action scenes which never cease to thrill. Arguably the highlight this issue is the sight of Persephone steadily charging at Ananke.
Ultimately Persephone makes a decision regarding Ananke and the gods find themselves presented with a whole new set of compromising moral dilemmas. Rising Action concludes with youth triumphant, yet, also a fair bit of innocence trampled. The need for “necessity” does not disappear with Ananke. The issue ends with an image which could have been the ultimate statement of generational changing of the guards. Instead, it has the feel of a hollow victory. Within the glare of neon lights and splattered blood, the declaration of freedom to do “whatever we want” sounds more like a threat than a liberation. Everything rests on the Pantheon’s shoulders now. Can they rise to the challenge? This emotionally involving, stunningly illustrated issue, leaves readers eager to discern the answer.